A number of authors and analysts have already weighed in on the 2014 elections. Sean Trende at RCP sees minimal gains for Democrats or the GOP. At the Senate level much remains dependent on recruiting by both parties. A.B. Stoddard, writing for the Hill, sees Obamacare as a train-wreck for Democrats in 2014 but expects the GOP to struggle in 2016 due to a more diverse and liberal electorate voting. Others, such as Charles Krauthammer and Michael Barone see modest GOP gains due to a public unhappy with the implementation of Obamacare.
My analysis centers on four factors. The composition of the electorate, historical midterm patterns, Presidential job approval and the overall political map. Each of these factors will play a major role in the 2014 midterm elections. One does not have to think hard to find recent examples of how this impacted earlier midterm elections. In 2010 the electorate was 77% white (compared to 74% in 2008), the President’s job approval was well below 50% in 2010, the President’s party usually suffers at the polls in his first midterm, and many Democrats, thanks to 2006 and 2008 were sitting in red or swing districts come 2010. As a result, 2010 was a bloodbath for Democrats at the federal level (as well as at the state level).
Composition of the Electorate: It is a general rule of thumb in politics that the electorate is whiter and more conservative in midterm elections. It certainly was whiter in 2006 and 2010 than 2008 or 2012. However, in 2006, it was no more conservative than 2004 while 2010 was far more conservative than 2006 and 2008. So this rule of thumb only goes so far. One should also keep in mind that demographics play a crucial role in the composition of the electorate. Consider in 2010 the GOP won women 49%-48% and won 40% of single women (an unheard of state for the party). Fast-forward to 2012 though and the party lost women 44%-56%. African-American and Hispanic turnout soared in 2008 and 2012 compared to 2010. The GOP did roughly as well with African-Americans in 2010 as they did in 2012. However, the party dropped among Hispanics by a whopping 11% in 2012 compared to 2010. Compare it to 2004 and the figure is an astounding 17% fall.
None of this is to say that the electorate will be more or less diverse than 2008, 2010 or 2012. But a more diverse electorate means more benefits to Democrats, especially in states like California, Colorado and Florida with growing Hispanic populations. The GOP would prefer a more white, less diverse electorate, centered on rural and suburban areas where they are strongest. If these groups turn out at 2010 levels expect the GOP to do well. If it is closer to 2006 or the unheard of 2012 levels the GOP is in for a rough night.
Historical Midterm Patterns: Since the 20th century very few Presidents have not seen their parties suffer in midterms. Both Clinton and Obama were handed strong rebukes from voters in their first midterm while Bush and the GOP saw modest gains. Fast forward to second term Presidents midterms and only three Presidents have seen their parties strengthened: FDR, Clinton and Eisenhower. The verdict is out on Obama. These results have given rise to what is known as the “Second term itch.” However, in many cases a President’s second midterm results in subpar results for his party due to outside factors. In 2006 the Iraq War was going badly and corruption was rampant in the GOP. In 1986 the economy was dipping into another recession. In 1938 the economy was heading back into recession and voters objected to a strong centralized economy.
But just as is the case with bad midterm results for a President’s party, good results often occur due to outside factors. In 1998 the GOP imploded over their impeachment of Bill Clinton. While the GOP maintained control of Congress they also lost much of their political advantage over the President as a result. So while historical midterm patterns can give us an idea of what to expect in the second midterm of Obama’s tenure it only tells us so much.
Presidential Job Approval: In 2010 the President’s approval was well below 50%. In 2012 when the President was reelected he was right at 50% and won reelection. In 2006 Bush’s approval was underwater by almost 15%. Contrast his approval being above 50% in 2004 when he was reelected. The same dynamic was in effect in 1994 when Clinton’s approval fell fast in 1994 but recovered for him to win a landslide in 1996.
Presidential job approval since Clinton has become highly polarized. Roughly 75% of Republicans approved of Bush’s job performance for his entire tenure. Barely 15% of Democrats did the same. Independent support for the President rose and fell but dropped off dramatically in his second term. Clinton saw Republican approval of his term never eclipse 20% (according to Gallup) but Democrats and Independents approved of most of his tenure. Under Obama this dynamic has only intensified. Gallup finds the President around 50% for most of his first six months since his reelection. However, less than 10% of Republicans approve and a majority of Independents disapprove. In short, the President’s approval depends on 90%-95% approval among his own party.
Presidential job approval thus is highly correlated with turnout and support from partisans and Independents. This phenomenon is slightly different in a midterm as opposed to a Presidential election but the underlying connection remains. If a President can maintain support among his party, especially strong support, it is more likely the base will turnout for the midterm. However, there are serious questions about whether the Obama or “New Democratic Coalition” will turnout for older and more conservative Democratic candidates in a midterm even if they approve of the President (who is far more liberal than many members of his party).
The Political Playing Field: Since 2000 the country has become highly polarized. The results of 2010, 2011 redistricting and the 2012 elections only solidified this trend. Today, ticket splitting is virtually non-existent, at least at the federal level, and only 9 Democrats represents Congressional Districts Romney won and only 15 Republicans districts Obama won. Certainly there are a fair number of districts that could swing either way depending on the national political environment and the candidates. However, they have decreased significantly over the years.
According to the Cooke PVI (Partisan Value Index), which calculates a district’s or state’s partisan tilt depending on its results compared to other states or the national average, less than 100 Congressional Districts have a Cooke PVI of less than R+5 or D+5. Short of national waves few candidates can overcome partisan tilts that exceed these outcomes. Consider the recent example of the SC-1 special election. A deeply flawed Mark Sanford won the GOP nod. A slightly liberal candidate, Colbert-Busch won the Democratic nod. The district had supported John McCain by 14% in 2008 and Romney by 18% in 2012. The district had a PVI of R+11. Busch ran a strong and smart campaign emphasizing the flaws of her opponent and her conservative ideas. But in the end despite over-performing Obama by 9% in the district she lost 54%-45%. On the other hand a candidate overcoming a district’s partisan tilt can signal an upcoming national wave. Think Democratic victories in GOP Congressional Districts in the South in 2007.
Since redistricting very few seats remain in play. The states with the most seats in play are Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, perhaps Texas, and New York. Both Georgia and North Carolina, along with Utah, have Democrats in Romney districts. In California and Pennsylvania sit several Republicans in Obama districts. The Florida Congressional map is tied up in court so the state by 2014 could be the holy grail of gains for both parties. But absent the states above the parties will need to rely on exceptionally strong recruiting to win races.
Lastly, at the Senate level recruiting has been slow. The GOP has Congresswomen Shelly Moore Capito running in ruby-red West Virginia and Mike Rounds is running in South Dakota. Both are open Senate seats. The GOP lucked out in Georgia with Democratic Congressman John Barrow deciding not to run for the open seat. In open seats in Iowa, Montana, and Michigan the GOP is struggling to find strong candidates (Democrats not so much). In Arkansas and Alaska the GOP is waiting on strong candidates to move beyond the exploratory phase of their campaigns. So while the Senate playing field favors the GOP they will need more centrist conservatives to take down several strong incumbents in red states. Only then will they gain control of the Senate.
This is of course an incomplete analysis. There is plenty of time between now and 2014 to see where the political winds blow. We also will get to watch the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial results in November which perhaps will indicate where voters are leaning coming into 2014. Regardless, as it stands now, the best anybody can say is that at the Congressional level the GOP or Democrats will see modest gains and the Senate is up for grabs. In a future post I will hit on state results.