What the 2014 elections taught us

The defining message of the 2014 elections was that there was none. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can claim a mandate, instead producing an election more characteristic of what it was not about than what it affirmed. But what the 2014 elections did reveal is that we really have two distinct election cycles in America, producing different majorities and centers of power, each favoring either the Democrats or Republicans. In many ways, this is what the constitutional framers envisioned, except somewhere along the way something went askew.

First, the 2014 elections took place when no political institution or major party seemed to be in favor. Obama's approvals hovered in the low 40s, similar to his predecessor at this time in his presidency, but 20 points below Clinton and Reagan at year six. Congress' approval rating was at about 12 percent, barely more popular than the Ebola virus but competitive with views about bed bugs and cockroaches. In the generic poll for who should control Congress, Republicans barely had a lead over Democrats with 43 percent to 41 percent support. Moreover, as the Pew Research Center reported in October, this was an election where the public seemed indifferent to it. Large percentages of the American public said they were not following the election, with best estimates being that 60 percent if not more of those eligible to vote did not.

Second, there was no real defining narrative in the 2014 elections. At least no positive narrative. Republicans ran almost singularly against Obama, Obamacare, or Obama incompetence at all levels of government, nationalizing the races from the U.S. Senate down to state legislative seats. What they plan to do with power is not clear. Democrats again were handicapped by the fact that since 2010 they have lacked a national narrative. That is why they lost big in 2010. Again as in 2010 the Democratic narrative was that Republicans were nuts, evil, or racist, and again they seemed to run away from Obama or his policies.

Third, on so many levels, the election results did little to change national politics. For the last two if not four years power has been gridlocked in Washington, and that is certainly not going to change with the new Congress. Obama was already a lame duck before the election and he was destined to lose influence no matter what the results. Last Tuesday's returns simply accelerate the shrinkage of his presidency. The last four years have been marked by repeated but failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care, Act, inaction on immigration and global warming, short term stopgap budget issues, and stalemates on minimum wage and a host of other issues. Don't expect to see that change in the next two years. New congressional majorities do not necessarily mean that the House and Senate will act more responsibly and that its leadership and Obama will reach agreement by necessity. What needs to be understood is that there is a basic philosophical difference over the role of government here, with little electoral incentive to compromise. This is the core to understanding the 2014 elections.

The Pew Research Center has argued correctly that what has emerged in American politics is a two-track election cycle. We have a presidential election cycle marked by turnouts in the mid 50s where women, the young, and people of color turn out, or at least vote in percentages greater than in midterm elections. These are presidential election years that favor Democrats. But the midterm elections produce significantly lower turnouts, with older, whiter, and more male electorates. In each of these election cycles a different mixture of congressional, state, and local seats are up for election too. The result is that different electorates create contrasting majorities and results. Effectively we have dual majorities rule in the United States, each checking one another. In many ways, this is exactly what the constitutional framers wanted. They created six years terms for the Senate, four for the president, and two for the House so that the ability of a majority of voters to make sudden and sweeping change would be blocked. The goal of the framers was to enable incremental change and check the tyranny of the majority. This is was this dual election cycle has produced.

Except the framers believed that there would be compromise. But they also lived in an era before political parties emerged. They did not envision the partisanship that has emerged and which is now producing clear party-line voting. It is bad enough that parties have emerged, if you are a George Washington, but now they are ideological in nature, more characteristic of those found in parliamentary style governments. Such parties are ill-suited for separation of powers democracies such as the United States where compromise in needed. Combine checks and balances and separation of powers with party polarization and one gets gridlock.

Second, the framers did not see the geographic sorting of partisanship that has emerged. Yes the framers saw sectionalism and geography as a political threat, but not to the extent that Bill Bishop describes in his "The Big Sort" where Americans are choosing to live based on political preferences. This clustering is producing a Congress and state legislatures that are increasingly difficult to apportion in a way to produce very many competitive seats. Even absent gerrymandering, there are few legislative seats that can be drawn in a way that do not favor one party or another. This political-geographic sorting plays out differently in the dual election cycles, reinforcing the idea that the county now has dual majorities rule.

Finally, while the framers supported federalism as a product of political compromise, they also wanted it as a way to balance state and national power. Federalism too produces contrasting majorities, and they too are increasingly affected by the dual election cycles. For example, this year in 46 states, 6,057 (82.0 percent) of the country's 7,383 state legislative seats are up along with 36 governor's races. In contrast, in 2012 there were 6,015 state house seats up (81.5 percent of the total) and 14 governor's races. State elections are just as much a part of midterm elections as they are presidential election cycles, pulled between two different electorates and majorities. Yet because of the big sort phenomena, state elections seem to be increasingly captured by the Republicans, making it difficult for Democrats in presidential years to ousted them.

Overall, what we really learn from the 2014 elections is that not much will change at the national level compared to the last four years. In part that is because of some unique aspects of this election where no candidates are really popular or have a narrative, and where the voters seem indifferent. But more importantly, what it reveals is the emergence of dual election cycles, each favoring different majorities and political parties. Instead of this cycle driving political compromise as perhaps the framers had hoped, it now yields structural gridlock.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Published: Fri, Nov 14, 2014

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