Let me begin this preview with a note of humility: when the 2012 election season began, it was widely reported that President Obama was going to have serious trouble getting reelected, and that the Republicans were odds-on favorites to recapture the U.S. Senate. As we know, President Obama won reelection by margins that, when all the votes are counted, will not be that far off his sweeping 2008 victory, and Republicans not only failed to take the Senate but actually lost a net of two seats.
The preceding disclaimer should demonstrate that likelihoods are not guarantees, and that any preview of an upcoming election two years out is a risky proposition. Who could have foreseen, in 2010, that Republicans would lose not one but two Senate races because their nominees in those races would make idiotic comments about rape?
That said, all indications right now point to 2014 being a tough year for Democrats and a good one for Republicans.
First, although Democrats did spectacularly well in 2012, there were still some indicators that should cause concern. President Obama became the first president in U.S. history to win reelection with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than he won in his first election, and only the third reelected president to receive fewer electoral votes in his reelection campaign. The first was James Madison in 1812, in the midst of an unpopular war with Britain. The second was Woodrow Wilson in 1916, but that comes with a big caveat: his sweeping 1912 victory was due entirely to President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt splitting the GOP vote and, thereby, helping deliver 40 states to Wilson. And although Democrats did pick up a net of eight seats in the U.S. House, they left another dozen on the table that they could have won if they had performed just a percentage point or two better. So, yes, the Democrats did well in 2012, but their performance was not nearly as strong as their results in 2006 and 2008, when there were true Democratic waves.
Secondly, just as in 2010, Democrats are far more exposed in U.S. Senate races than Republicans are. The Democratic class of 2008, which netted their party an eight-seat pickup in the Senate, faces its first reelection test. Democrats are defending 20 of the 33 seats up for election, and of the 13 Republicans who are up, it is hard to find even one who looks vulnerable now. Perhaps Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may face a tough race; he struggled in each of his last two elections and may be ripe for an upset, but even that is a longshot for Democrats; it is a certainty that McConnell will raise stunning amounts of money. But no fewer than eight Democratic Senators will face difficult challenges in 2014, and perhaps as many as 10. If Republicans net six seats, they will reclaim the chamber. It is true that Democrats faced longer odds in 2012 but still prevailed—and in fact increased their majority in the Senate. How likely is it that they can defy the odds two cycles in a row?
Third, Democrats will have a hard time hanging on to a number of the U.S. House seats they captured in 2012. Of 33 House races decided by less than six percentage points this year, Democrats won 20 and Republicans only 13. Additionally, Democrats won two seats—in Florida’s 26th District and Illinois’ 8th District—by double digits, but this was largely due to the implosion of Republican incumbents David Rivera and Joe Walsh, respectively.
We have seen, as we saw in 2010, that Democratic turnout in midterms can lag significantly as compared to presidential election years. If Democrats fail to turn out their voters in the 2014 midterms, it is not hard to see Democratic losses of 10-20 House seats and 4-8 Senate seats.
Couple the potential for a falloff in Democratic turnout with the likelihood that Republicans will continue to obstruct the process—thereby denying President Obama and the Democrats significant victories—and the prospects for a Republican turnaround in 2014 look strong.
Then there’s history. Since the founding of both of the current major political parties, there have been 11 midterm elections under presidents serving their second terms. In 10 of those 11 elections, the president’s party has lost seats in both the House and the Senate—on average, 34 House seats and six Senate seats. The only exception was the 1998 midterm election, in which Republican investigations of President Bill Clinton backfired and cost the GOP a modest net loss of four House seats. Let’s have a look:
President Ulysses S. Grant (R)
Republicans lost 93 House seats
Senators were not elected by popular vote at this time.
President Theodore Roosevelt (R)
Republicans lost 28 House seats
Senators were not elected by popular vote at this time.
President Woodrow Wilson (D)
Democrats lost 19 House seats and 6 Senate seats
President Calvin Coolidge (R)
Republicans lost 10 House seats and 6 Senate seats
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)
Democrats lost 71 House seats and 6 Senate seats
President Harry S. Truman (D)
Democrats lost 29 House seats and 6 Senate seats
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R)
Republicans lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats
President Lyndon B. Johnson (D)
Democrats lost 47 House seats and 4 Senate seats
President Ronald Reagan (R)
Republicans lost 5 House seats and 8 Senate seats
President Bill Clinton (D)
Democrats picked up 4 House seats and broke even in the Senate
President George W. Bush (R)
Republicans lost 30 House seats and 6 Senate seats
In short, every indicator demonstrates that Democrats should lose big in the upcoming midterm elections. As we saw this year, and in 1998, what is expected to happen doesn’t always necessarily occur. But Democrats must be prepared to work very hard if they want to avoid the usual midterm losses that almost always happen to the party of a president at his second midterm.
Today I read a story about a dispute between different exit pollsters over whether or not the Republicans lost the Cuban vote in Florida.
The fact that Republicans are arguing over whether they won or lost the Cuban vote in south Florida, a week after an election in which they got their heads handed to them, tells us all we need to know. The Republicans have far bigger problems than whether they won or lost the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Rather than trying to determine how the Titanic failed to avoid the iceberg, the GOP is arguing over where the deck chairs were placed. Brilliant.
The Titanic metaphor is apt, because the Republican Party, as currently constituted, is a complete shipwreck. It hit the iceberg with the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been sinking, in terms of the public’s confidence, ever since. The party suffered a triple whammy in 2005, with Katrina, the Terri Schiavo controversy and the ill-fated attempt to privatize Social Security; the 2006 midterm election wave that delivered Congress to the Democrats for the first time in 12 years resulted directly from what occurred in 2005.
Then, after the economic meltdown at the end of the Bush administration, the Republicans got whipped again in the 2008 elections. Their brief revival in 2010, from today’s vantage point, appears to have been more of a last gasp than a recovery. Two years after that fleeting triumph, they lost to a president suffering the highest unemployment rate of any reelected president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, and still, their loss to the Democrats wasn’t even especially close. Additionally, they lost a net of two Senate seats in a year in which they were defending only 10 seats to their opponents’ 23; and if it hadn’t been for the massive gerrymandering in key states in 2011, they may well have lost the House, too. Democratic House candidates, cumulatively, received more votes than Republican House candidates nationwide.
The Republicans are clearly in free fall at this point, and they seem to have no understanding of why this is the case or how to fix it. The party’s establishment wing and its populist wing are at loggerheads, especially now that it has dawned on the rank-and-file that the Wall Street crowd has been using them as pawns for years. But the GOP populists have the wrong formula for reviving the party’s fortunes. The Tea Party element is preaching that the Republicans lost either because they weren’t conservative enough, while many Republicans of all stripes, both populist and establishment, believe they were not clear enough in their messaging. Neither hypothesis is correct. The Republicans have never been more right-wing, not even when they nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, and they conveyed their rabid conservatism loudly and clearly at every turn. Voters in 2012 did not simply reject the Republican sales pitch; they rejected the Republican product.
The Republican asylum burned to the ground on November 6th, and now the inmates and the guards, rather than figuring out how to rebuild the building, are getting ready to fight to the death to determine who will preside over the ashes. Democrats are gleefully heating up the popcorn and getting ready to enjoy the spectacle.
But Democrats had better not get too comfortable. While the Republicans clearly appear to be learning the wrong lessons from this election, there is always the danger that Democrats will do the same. Democrats must understand that victory does not mean, necessarily, that the country has embraced their entire agenda. The fact is that the Republicans lost this election much more than the Democrats won it. The voters compared their two options, found the former unacceptable, and grudgingly took a gamble on the latter. And while it is true that astute Democratic carpet-bombing of Mitt Romney and the GOP team helped the voters make that choice, the Democrats couldn’t have pulled off that political Dresden if the Republicans hadn’t handed them all the ammunition they needed.
If Democrats don’t justify the voters’ choice, and don’t avoid the massive turnout dropoff of two years ago, the nation’s electoral fortunes will swing back to the Republicans in 2014, just as they did in 2010. The Democrats need to put down the popcorn and go back for a second helping of elbow grease.
I am still working on tying everything together from the 2012 election into a singular theme, but for now, I just want to make some brief observations:
1) That demographic revolution Democrats have been talking about? It’s here. Non-white voters made up approximately 28 percent of the electorate. The Romney team and right-leaning pollsters like Rasmussen and Gallup were modeling for 25-26 percent, and that’s why they were stunned when Obama won. Increasing percentages of non-white voters is the new normal. The Republican Party must adapt, or die.
2) The state-by-state polls showing Obama ahead in virtually every battleground state? Yeah, they were pretty much right on target. (Except, of course, for Rasmussen. Rasmussen still skews to the right and will continue to have credibility issues as long as it’s wrong, which is quite often. But most credible polling turned out to be right on the money or pretty close to it.) So all of you poll deniers out there: Are you convinced yet? Or are you going to continue denying things like, oh, math and science?
3) Gallup is no longer the gold standard in polling. Honestly, it hasn’t been for quite some time, but this election should prove the deathblow to its credibility. In perhaps the most embarrassingly bad performance since, well, Gallup in the 1948 Truman-Dewey miscall, the supposed leading pollster in America went into the final week showing a significant Romney lead, and still had him winning at the end despite a sudden, dramatic tightening after suspending polling due to Hurricane Sandy. Even Rasmussen, always notoriously right-leaning, never showed a seven-point national lead for Romney as Gallup did. Gallup’s numbers on the race were reflective of nothing resembling reality, and this organization either needs to right the ship or—pardon the pun—Gallup off to the glue factory.
4) The pundits, particularly on the right? Completely disgraced. George Will and Peggy Noonan, formerly voices of reason, blew every shred of credibility they had in predicting a near-landslide for Romney. And then there was Dick Morris, but the good news for him was that he didn’t have any credibility to lose. But even some pundits who are usually relatively even-handed were sucked in to the fallacy that this was a dead-even race, and that’s in part due to all the smoke the Obama team blew for months and months, lulling Team Romney and the press into a completely false narrative.
5) Women actually do make up their own minds about what’s important to them. We saw a lot of female Republican politicians and Ann Romney go on television to say that reproductive choice issues really weren’t all that important to women. Well, it turns out that a lot of women actually do care when politicians attempt to tell them what kind of reproductive decisions they can and can’t make. And guess what, folks—quite a few women who would never choose to have an abortion themselves still don’t like the idea that politicians might want to make that decision on their behalf. Oh, and contraception? Stay away from that one, OK? This is 2012. That issue was settled for most people a long time ago. Even among Catholics, an estimated 90-plus percent use contraception at some point in their lives, and if you don’t believe that, ask yourself a question: When was the last time you saw a family with eight kids at Mass?
6) Stay away from rape. The next politician who mentions rape in any context (other than it is a horrible crime and must be severely punished) is not just a bad choice on women’s issues, but also too stupid to hold office. Just about any candidate who brought up this topic got beat. If the lesson here isn’t obvious, I don’t know what is.
7) Irrational hatred is not a viable electoral strategy. Much of the wacky wing of the GOP has spent most of the last four-plus years demonizing President Obama. What did it get them? Well, it got them somewhere in the ball park of 48 percent of the vote. Many on the right were so convinced that the country was dead-set on firing Obama that they neglected the need for a strong candidate or any raison d’etre beyond firing Obama. They just figured any Republican would beat him. Well, a lot of people hated George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt. What did they all have in common? They all got reelected, three of them in landslides. Learn this lesson and learn it well: A president vilified by his opponents almost always gets reelected. It’s the presidents who people feel sorry for who get beat.
8) Failure to acknowledge reality does not change reality. Many Republicans were stunned when Romney lost (including, by various accounts, Romney himself and his entire team). But all the scientific polling pointed to an Obama victory all along. The signs were clear for anybody who was willing to see them. There was never a single day, during the entire election cycle, when the state-level polling showed Romney anywhere near the lead in the electoral-vote count. Many leading Republican politicians pooh-poohed the notion of a “gender gap,” but it was there all along, and it was there on election day; 55 percent of women voted for Obama. Many on the right (including the Romney team and, by its own admission, Rasmussen) believed young voters and non-white voters would not show up in anywhere near the numbers they showed up in 2008, but they formed a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in any previous election. As Robert J. Ringer noted in his landmark book Winning Through Intimidation, failure to acknowledge reality and use it to your advantage ensures that reality will work against you. That is exactly what happened to the Republicans in 2012.
Not to throw my arm out of whack patting myself on the back, but I had a pretty good Election Night 2012.
As of today, I have correctly called all 49 of the states that have determined a winner in the presidential race. It looks like I am probably going to miss Florida, which I predicted Mitt Romney would win, but where President Barack Obama leads by about 40,000 votes with about 3 percent of the votes still to be counted, per CNN. Still, even 49 out of 50, if that’s where it ends up, puts me in very good company. Larry Sabato and his team at the University of Virginia Center for Politics—unquestionably among the best in the business—got 48 states right this year and, like me, picked Romney in Florida.
I’m not on the level of Nate Silver just yet—if Florida does go for Obama, as seems likely, he’ll be 50-for-50, and I tip my hat to him. He’s got an excellent system, far more scientific than mine, and he’s either 98 or 99 for 100 the past two presidential elections, depending on the final results in Florida. You can’t argue with those kinds of results (though many tried this year, and ended up with a plateful of crow).
I didn’t get every Senate race right—I missed Montana and North Dakota, as well as my prediction that Democrats would win either Nevada or Arizona, and my perception that Bob Kerrey had the momentum in Nebraska turned out to be badly off the mark. But in terms of the final spread, I came as close as a guy can get without actually being perfect: I said the Democrats would end up with a 54-46 majority in the Senate (counting independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats, and Angus King of Maine, who is presumed likely to caucus with Democrats). Because Heidi Heitkamp eked out a victory by less than 3,000 votes in North Dakota, I missed the final total of 55-45 by a single seat—as I did in 2006 and 2008.
In the House, CNN reports that there are still eight seats that are too close to call. Currently the Republicans lead 233-194. If the Democrats hang on to win the six seats in which they lead, and the Republicans hold the two seats in which they lead, that will put it at 235-200—exactly the number I predicted last week, as recorded twice on this website in advance of the election.
I admit that I approach political prognostication as more of an art than a science. For much of my adult life, I have extensively studied statistical, anecdotal and historical data about the politics of the various states and their Congressional districts, and I follow polling obsessively. I try to put my political knowledge and my powers of observation together and arrive at the right result, and despite my own political leanings, I strive to be scrupulously objective in making election predictions.
Since 2006, I’ve come extremely close in three elections out of four. I blew it in 2010 (missing the House by 10 seats and the Senate by three), but I wasn’t alone. It was an odd year. In three elections out of four, my average House prediction has missed by two seats (2, 4 and 0, if the 2012 totals hold up), and my Senate prediction by exactly one seat each cycle. (Interestingly enough, in all four elections since 2006, I overcalled the Democratic House total two times, but I undercalled the Democratic Senate total in each case.)
I take this political prediction business seriously and do my best to be a credible source. One thing is for sure: there weren’t many this year who had a better night.
Taking a last look at my Election Night Preview, I noticed a few small errors. My corrected, updated document is available here.