LAST NAMES MATTER
There's a very good chance that the next Democratic presidential nominee will be named Clinton, and a decent chance that the next Republican one will be named Bush. This works out well for me—I still have my T-shirts and buttons from 1992—but it's a reminder that family names still carry a lot of weight. Jeb Bush's candidacy, in particular, is instructive. He really does not fit in ideologically with much of the rest of the GOP leadership today, but his last name still opens many doors (and wallets). Someone with a different last name but Bush's policy stances would have a much harder time amassing endorsements and money. This is because, regardless of the successes of their presidencies, Republicans know that they tend to win nationally when they nominate Bushes. (The last time they won the White House without a Bush on the ticket was 1972.)
INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM IS REAL AND CHRONIC
This year saw many painful reminders that the criminal justice system is very different for African Americans than it is for whites. And even while our nation has made substantial and important improvements since the 1960s in terms of representation and legal equality, many persistent and invidious (and, to some, invisible) forms of discrimination remain, particularly in cities with very poor representation of African Americans in government. It's also a reminder that incentives matter. Even if everyone agrees that the killing of unarmed black men is wrong, as long as there's no penalty for it, it will continue to happen.
THE FUNDAMENTALS MATTER
The 2014 mid-term elections were a textbook case of what mid-term elections look like during a presidency of middling popularity and modest economic growth. The forecast models performed quite well and the results in terms of elections to the Senate, House, and state legislatures stuck pretty closely to what had been predicted months earlier. Notably, Republicans did about as well as they should have despite intensely angering much of the country a year earlier with the government shutdown and near-default on the nation's credit. Key points: Elections turn on very recent events, and they are mainly referenda on the president's party.
POLLS WORKED PRETTY WELL
Relatedly, the polling done prior to the 2014 mid-terms functioned very well this year, with the polling aggregation models created by political scientists correctly calling all but just a few key races. It turns out the polls somewhat underestimated Republican performance this year, and we probably could have guessed many of the outcomes correctly without looking at polls at all. Still, in an era when pollsters are increasingly worried that they're drawing unrepresentative samples due to technology bias, age bias, racial bias, and other biases, their models are continuing to provide reliable estimates of the actual vote.
POLICY SUCCESS DOES NOT EQUAL POLITICAL SUCCESS
This isn't really a new lesson, but it's an important one. Specifically, the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act have continued to function as well or better than advertised. They've not caused massive layoffs or declines in productivity, they've not caused a death spiral in private insurance markets, they've not triggered massive increases in the costs of insurance, and they've not transformed the United States into a Marxist dystopia. Instead, people are enrolling in health insurance plans by the millions, and health care cost inflation is at an historic low. This has not redounded to the political benefit of Barack Obama and the Democrats and probably never will. People can benefit from these new policies without crediting Democrats for them, and indeed the legislation's own design was necessarily complicated, making it difficult for most voters to pin credit or blame on any political figures.
YOU CAN LEGALIZE MARIJUANA WITHOUT THE STATE GOING TO POT
By most measures, Colorado's roll-out of legal marijuana purchases in 2014 has been a success. As of August, the state was pulling in between seven and eight million dollars per month in marijuana taxes, and the legal industry appears to be thriving. The sales tax numbers were strong, if not quite meeting initial forecasts, and there's been no noticeable increase in teen drug use or drug-related crime in the state. That doesn't mean the roll-out has been perfect; the rules of the initiative regarding possession limits are rather bizarre and more or less give a pass to edibles, which has led to a number of (thankfully, non-lethal) overdose cases. But overall, legalization has gone rather smoothly, and marijuana has become just a part of the state's legitimate economy.
So that's what we know at the end of 2014. May the next year leave us even smarter.