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2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don't get too worked up over this year's congressional mid-terms.
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(Photo: Denis Cristo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Denis Cristo/Shutterstock)

Over at the American Spectator, Jeffrey Lord recently asked whether the 2014 congressional mid-term elections would be more like a "wave" or an "earthquake." Chances are, it'll be neither.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What do these terms mean? Lord defines a wave election as one in which a party gains many seats, but only temporarily, and they are unable to make fundamental shifts in the political environment. Earthquakes, however, "leave an immutable trail of wreckage in their wake. What follows is a massive rebuilding and replacement of what once seemed solid as a rock." As he notes, the political science synonym for earthquake is "realignment."

Republicans don't have much ability to turn this year's election into a wave or an earthquake or anything else. The big part of the election that they could influence—the recruitment of challengers—has already happened.

And there's where he runs into trouble. As David Mayhew thoroughly demonstrated in a book a few years ago, the concept of a re-aligning election is basically a meaningless one. Yes, party coalitions do shift, sometimes dramatically and sometimes very slowly, but particular election results can generally be explained by the "fundamentals" of the political environment—the condition of the economy, the popularity of the president, international crises, etc. The elections of 1930 and 1932, for example, were undoubtedly important, giving Democrats large and durable majorities in the Congress and ultimately the presidency, but we shouldn't ascribe too much significance to them. Voters were simply responding predictably to horrible economic conditions by throwing the previous ruling party out of power. Conversely, when the economy expanded quickly in the mid-1930s, voters responded by re-electing Democrats by large margins. As Larry Bartels notes, this same pattern played out all over the world in response to the Great Depression.

Lord makes the mistake of assuming that parties and individual candidates have the power to determine whether an election will be a wave or an earthquake or whatever. For example:

Clinton was ... rebuked for going left early in the 1994 elections, and so he triangulated ... engaging with Newt Gingrich and taking conservative stances on welfare reform and other issues. Or in other words, sensing an earthquake, Clinton opted for the wave.

No, this doesn't make much sense. The 1994 election results, which put Republicans in charge of the Congress for the first time in 40 years, were a product of the fundamentals: a tepid and early economic recovery, an unpopular president, and the fact that so many Southern white voters were in the midst of a decades-long shift from being atypically conservative Democrats to typically conservative Republicans. President Clinton's moderate stances were not completely irrelevant to his re-election in 1996, but again, the fundamentals speak extremely loudly. The president was more popular than he'd been a few years earlier, the economy was expanding strongly and steadily, and the nation was at peace. Presidents get re-elected under these circumstances.

Similarly, Republicans don't have much ability to turn this year's election into a wave or an earthquake or anything else. The big part of the election that they could influence—the recruitment of challengers—has already happened, and Republicans largely succeeded there (or at least they haven't picked any Todd Akin-like candidates to run for major office this year). Now it's just a matter of House and Senate Democrats defending somewhat challenging turf in a year when their president has middling approval ratings and the economy is enjoying modest growth. These are conditions consistent with modest losses by the president's party, and that's precisely what forecastssuggest will happen. Yes, some campaign tactics and expenditures may affect races at the margins, but they're only at the margins because the fundamentals brought them there.

And what if the Republicans take the Senate and make some gains in the House this year? Can they use those gains to seize the White House in 2016? Not really. The party's behavior in office isn't completely irrelevant to elections, but the 2016 presidential race is an open-seat one, meaning that it's basically up for grabs. As Mayhew notes, such elections historically split 50-50; Democrats will have an advantage if the economy is expanding in 2016, Republicans will have the advantage if it's in recession.

Maybe Republicans will, by sheer luck, have two strong elections in a row, and maybe writers like Lord will later retroactively impose a title like "earthquake" upon it. But that doesn't mean the Earth actually moved.