Will November’s Elections Change Anything?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Less than one week separate the United States from congressional midterm elections. In one sense, it may seem that the results are a fait accompli; every major poll shows Republicans are favored to take control of the Senate and keep their majority in the House of Representatives. Pew Research Center found that among voters most likely to cast votes in November, 47 percent support the Republican candidate on the ballot, while only 44 percent support the Democrat candidate; the FiveThirtyEight forecast model gives Republicans a 63.3 percent chance at securing a majority in the Senate; and Charlie Cook — of the Cook Political Report — put the GOP’s odds near 60 percent.

After all, the GOP does have several advantages over Democrat incumbents and first-time candidates, most notably the party has numbers; midterm elections always draw older voters, and typically white voters, in disproportionate numbers. And as Cook Political Report explains, “older voters are less transient, have grown deeper roots in their local communities, and pay much more attention to non-presidential elections than their younger counterparts.” While that reality did not hold partisan consequences thirty years ago, the fact that midterm election voters tend to be older and whiter than in presidential elections now “amounts to a built-in midterm turnout advantage for Republicans.”


Source: Harry Enten/FiveThirtyEight

But still a number of key races are expected to be tight, meaning that issues, from the economy to health care to foreign policy, do still matter in a number of states. Given the potential November’s elections have to reconstruct the political landscape — by winning the Senate majority and keeping control of the House, the GOP will no longer be able to blame Democrats for standing in the way of important Republican-sponsored legislation — it is important to examine why the GOP is expected to both win the Senate and gain more seats in the House despite the party’s unpopularity in national polls.

Here is a look at what voters should know about the 2014 elections.

1. Yes, the congressional midterm elections will be a judgement of Barack Obama’s presidency

ApprovalRatingHistorically, midterms are referenda on the incumbent president. And typically, midterm elections favor the party that doesn’t control the White House. It may seem that how Americans judge the president would have very little bearing on congressional elections, even if it does speak to the condition of the American political system. However, data shows that there is in fact a correlation between presidential approval ratings and the success of his party in congressional elections. For example, when Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 election, President Bill Clinton’s job approval rating stood at 46 percent in the final Gallup poll conducted before Americans went to vote. Similarly, a Gallup survey conducted just before the 2006 midterm elections put George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent, and Democrats gained thirty-one seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate. Of course, it is important to remember that those approval ratings reflect opinions just before the election, and the United States is less than fifty days away from the midterms.

November’s congressional elections appear to be no exception to this rule. Barack Obama is far from popular at the moment. According to Gallup’s most recent reading, just 41 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, and data suggests that his approval rating sunk several percentage points in the weeks following the announcement that United States began airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq. The fact that his ratings have slid fairly consistently throughout his second term suggests that Obama’s brand, which is primarily based on his 2008 promise of hope and change, has been tarnished by the still-sluggish economic recovery, the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges, and what some voters see as international inexperience. And Pew Research found that “Barack Obama is as powerful a motivating factor for Republican voters as he was in 2010.” Half of Republican voters surveyed said they “consider their vote as a vote ‘against’ Obama.” And, at the same time, Obama has become less of a positive factor or Democrats; only 36 percent of respondents who plan to cast their ballot for the Democrat in their district view their vote as being “for” Obama, a decrease from 44 percent four years ago.

“One of the perennials of American politics is that the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections, especially in the House of Representatives,” wrote political scientist Eric McGhee in a February piece for the Washington Post, referring to a phenomenon known as the midterm penalty. “Only three midterm elections in the last century featured a seat gain for the president’s party in the House: 1934, 1998, and 2002. Of those, the largest was 9 seats in 2002.”  The Great Depression, the disastrous effort to impeach Bill Clinton, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks serve as the only examples of the last century.

And it is true that Democrats running for office in red states have made efforts to distance themselves from both Obama’s most controversial moves and from Washington’s now-perennial dysfunction.

2. The issues matter

A March survey conducted by NBC and The Wall Street Journal found that 44 percent of respondents said that a “congressperson’s position on national issues” would be more important in deciding their votes than the “congressperson’s performance in taking care of problems in your district.” And that remains true. A recent poll conducted by Pew Research shows that voters are not only divided “only over their candidate preferences, but also about the importance of key issues in the election.”

Sizable Partisan Gaps over Importance of Deficit, Foreign Policy, EnvironmentFor Republican voters, foreign policy, the budget deficit and immigration are the most dominant issues, with 70 percent or more of respondents highlighting each as “very important” to their vote in the fall. By comparison, only about half of Democrats say those issues will inform their votes come November. Instead, Democrats are concerned with environmental issues and economic inequality — problems that worry only four in ten Republicans. All voters rank terrorism and the economy as top priorities — although in both cases they rate as more important for Republicans than Democrats. Gallup polling data also shows that, across the political spectrum, American voters as a whole see the economy as the most important issue driving their midterm votes. A May survey found that voters see Republicans as better equipped to address economic problems — although they did choose Democrats as the party best able to solve income and wealth inequality.

Meanwhile, the GOP also has an edge over Democrats in terms of national security. As of September, 55 percent of Americans chose Republicans as the party best able to protect the United States from international terrorism and military threats, which represents the widest Republican advantage Gallup has ever recorded. And 77 percent of voters cite health care as an issue important for the upcoming midterms, while opinions of the Affordable Care Act remain unchanged over the past year. Currently, 44 percent approve of the law and 52 percent disapprove, while 45 percent say the law has had a mostly negative impact on the U.S. health care system and 38 percent the law’s effects have been mostly positive.

3. Despite the Republicans’ great odds, a number of races will be tight

“While the contest for the majority in the Senate has many facets, none is more important than whether Democrats can hold onto any of their six most vulnerable seats: those that are up in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012,” noted The Cook Political Report. According to Cook’s analysis, Democrats have little chance of holding on to the three open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia that were left vacant by their Democrat incumbents. And the remaining three incumbent Democrats in traditionally red states — Mark Begich in Alaska, which Romney carried by 14 points; Mark Pryor in Arkansas, where Romney won by 24 points; and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, a state where Romney topped Obama by 17 points — are also at risk of losing to Republican challengers.

States where votes were more evenly split between Obama and Romney — as in Colorado, where Mark Udall is up for reelection; in North Carolina, where Kay Hagan is also up for reelection, and in Iowa, where the seat is open — are also experiencing close races. Cook also noted the outcomes in GOP-held states and in strong Obama states bear watching as well: “If Democrats get wiped out in red states, that could be the whole ball game when it comes to Senate control. They had better knock off a Republican seat somewhere and sweep the purple states.”

4. Here are the stakes of November’s elections

While Republicans have maintained that Democrats have prevented important legislation, designed by the GOP to help working Americans, from passing through the Senate and into law, political scientists (and Democratic lawmakers) do not believe legislative dysfunction will be alleviated. If the GOP gains control of more than fifty seats in the Senate, Republican lawmakers will be handed the ability decide what does and does not come to the floor for consideration. But, despite that power, Republicans are not expected to advance legislation to boost job creation or reform the Affordable Care Act. “A GOP Senate takeover would be terrible for Obama’s presidency,” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told the Daily Beast in April. “It would spell the end of any progress on any legislative action and with GOP control of both houses of Congress, Republicans would set up debates to help their presidential candidates in 2016. And of course, investigations of the administration would double.” And Democrat senators agree. “It would let loose six years of right-wing frustration,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told the publication. “The potential for gridlock is enormous.”

But if it appears the Democrat party is not too concerned about losing the Senate, it is because Republicans are expected to lose control of the upper house of Congress in 2016, when the Senate class of 2010 will be up for reelection. That year saw a Tea Party wave propel a number of conservative lawmakers into office, meaning Republicans will be defending a great number of seats in 2016. Democrats will be defending ten seats to the GOP’s twenty-four, and the Democratic party will also have the more favorable voting patterns of a presidential election year as an aid. Because the 2016 election will likely reverse this year’s results, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver called it “the least important election in decades.”

Still, a change of power dynamics in Congress means Republicans will have substantial veto power over any future Obama appointments to the Supreme Court. Currently, the court is divided five to four between conservative and liberal justices, which presents a problem. The partisan split has produced a long string of 5-to-4 decisions made by the Roberts Court, meaning that the rulings that have the greatest potential to influence the lives of the American public are regularly decided by the narrowest margin. Furthermore, legal scholars consider those narrow 5-to-4 decisions to be the most political, while research shows that those rulings often overturned by later courts and that they do convey the same moral authority as more unanimous opinions. But given the average age of the Supreme Court is 68 — with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at 81, both Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy at 78, and Stephen Breyer at 76 — changes could be coming. And with the party that controls Congress will be able to impact Obama’s ability (or help him) reshape the Court. For that reason alone, the 2014 election could in fact be quite important.

5. What about the low approval rating of Congress?

Americans trust in all three branches are near record lows, according to Gallup. Thanks to a significant decline from last year, trust in the executive branch has hit the lowest reading of Obama’s presidency, standing at 43 percent. Gallup’s historic low — of 40 percent — came in April 1974, just months before President Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate Scandal. Gallup’s trust measure also fell into the low 40-percent range during the last two years of President George W. Bush’s presidency. By comparison, Congress has much lower ratings. Thanks to the struggling economy and partisan gridlock, trust in the legislative branch has been been generally weak in recent years. Over the past two years its rating has recovered slightly from the 31 percent measured in 2011, thanks to the contentious debt-ceiling negotiations, but Americans’ trust in Congress has decreased this year, dropping to 34 percent. The judicial branch is also experiencing below-average ratings. And, this marks the first occasion where growing distrust has plagued all three branches of government. Not only is trust eroding, but Americans cite government as one of the country’s greatest problems as well.

As Gallup noted, congressional midterm elections provide the opportunity for voters to alter the balance of power in Congress, which theoretically could improve Americans’ trust in government institutions. “However, it is not clear how much the government will change once the elections are over. Republicans are expected to keep majority control of the House, meaning there will be some form of divided government for Obama’s last two years, regardless of which party wins control of the Senate,” noted the report.

6. Democrats have no hope at taking the House, despite last fall’s unpopular government shutdown and the GOP’s dismal ratings.

It may seem odd that the Democrats, who have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, have no hope at winning a majority in the House of Representatives, which is considered to be the the most representative body of government. And indeed, it is a paradox.

However, there is an explanation. First, there is the problem known as the geographical GOP bias. Democrats typically live in more densely inhabited, urban districts, while Republicans tend to be scattered across more rural areas. As Pew found, “when it comes to the type of community they’d like to live in, liberals are drawn toward city life while conservatives prefer small towns and rural areas. Given the choice to live anywhere in the U.S., 41% of consistent conservatives would want to live in a rural area, and an additional 35% would choose a small town. Fewer consistent conservatives (20%) would prefer living in the suburbs and just 4% want to live in a city.” The results of this so-called bias is that Republican voters are spread across many districts and the Democratic electorate is so concentrated in metropolitan areas that their ballots are “wasted” on candidates who could win with a far fewer votes.


Source: The New York Times

The Democrat’s overwhelming dominance of major urban areas outweighs the somewhat smaller majorities Republicans hold in the rest of the country when sheer numbers matter, as in Senate races and presidential elections. But the fact that Democrats have created national majorities and state majorities by gaining new voters in already Democratic-leaning congressional districts, not by winning over new regions, means the party is at disadvantage in House races. And Pew’s data shows, where Americans live — metropolitan or rural — informs their political views.

And then there is the role of partisan gerrymandering to consider, a subject that has been much debated. Some — like The New York Times’ Nate Cohn — argue that even though the practice has “allowed Republicans to squeeze extra districts out of states like Michigan and Virginia, and strategically reinforce vulnerable incumbents,” gerrymandering is not “responsible for the entire Republican edge in the House.” But Katelyn Fossett of Politico claims that gerrymandering — where congressional districts are redrawn for the purpose of improving election odds — will be one reason Republicans will keep control of the House in November’s elections. Of course, both parties are equally guilty.

However, according to Fossett, Republicans have been much more successful at leveraging redistricting into seats. In the 2010 midterm election, “the strategy proved a winner for Republicans, who dominate the state legislatures that control district boundaries in most states,” she noted. And in that contest, in the seven states where the district maps were redrawn by the GOP, the total number of votes cast for each party were fairly close: 16.4 million for Democrats and 16.7 million for Republicans. But, thanks to districting, those votes resulted in seventy-three Republicans and thirty-four Democrats elected.

Update, 9/18: Now, FiveThirtyEight has found that the Senate picture is more muddled than previously thought; new data indicates that a number of races will be more competitive.

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