There’s been a lot written about the impact of the 2014 elections, but let’s not overlook one of the really crucial points: its effect on Republican morale. Republicans didn’t just need a win: we needed a win that met or exceeded pre-Election Day expectations. 2014 delivered that – every Republican who was expected to contend on Election Day contended; every Republican who was expected to win won; most Republicans who were expected to be in tossup races won; several Republicans who were expected to lose won; some Republicans who weren’t expected to contend did. Almost nobody entered Election Day with a reasonable expectation greater than the net results in the Senate, House, Governors and state legislative races. And while a few races that were thought of as close to tossups disappointed (the Senate race in New Hampshire, the Governors races in Colorado, Connecticut and Alaska), every race that was really symbolically important to Republicans ended in victory. Republicans proved they could win Senate races in light-blue Iowa and demographically shifting Colorado, could defend Governors with key conservative policy agendas in Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan (as well as North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) tried to make Thom Tillis’ race a referendum on the GOP-controlled state legislature). No Republican-held Senate seats were lost, no red-state races fumbled away aside from the Alaska Governor’s race, and every single surprise result compared to the polling was in the GOP direction.
The fact that this happened is a crucial psychological boost to the party and all its factions, from New England moderates to Deep South Christian conservatives, from the Tea Party grassroots to the K Street lobbyists. And that has ripple effects that may prove important in 2016.
Concepts like “morale” and “momentum” and “chemistry,” in politics just as in sports, are as often byproducts as causes of success. And political parties naturally undergo a cycle of confidence leading to swagger leading to hubris after successes, and recrimination leading to disarray leading to demoralization leading to renewed purpose, focus and hunger for victory after defeats. Winning after losing is a good thing, but it’s not that unusual; indeed, it’s been the rule in American politics.
What was significant about the GOP’s struggles the past few years is how it lost. 2010 was a GOP wave year if ever there was one, with the party gaining 63 House seats, 6 Senate seats (four of them in states Obama had won just two years earlier) while losing none, and gaining eleven Democrat-held Governor’s mansions, seven of them in Obama 2008 states (while losing five in deep-blue territory the other way). And yet, Republicans were left with a bit of a sour aftertaste: they lost two Senate races (in Nevada and Colorado) and one Governor’s race (in Illinois) where they had led in the polls going into Election Day. The Colorado Governor’s race collapsed in infighting and scandal, with the party effectively abandoning nominee Dan Maes and divisive third-party candidate and former Republican Tom Tancredo taking a big chunk of the vote; the blowback from that, plus some gaffes and bad blood from the primary, also helped do in Senate nominee Ken Buck. Hated Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), while deeply unpopular with Nevada voters, won re-election due to the terrible campaign of Sharron Angle, also picked after a divisive primary. In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell’s nomination lost the GOP what had looked like a likely pickup behind longtime liberal Republican Congressman Mike Castle. In Alaska, the party’s primary winner, Joe Miller, went down to defeat when the primary loser, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), refused to accept the verdict and ran a write-in campaign (Miller would probably have won a two-way race). In Washington, Dino Rossi, robbed of the Governorship in 2004, lost his third agonizingly close statewide race in seven years. In Connecticut, fishy last-minute ballots unearthed in Bridgeport won the Governor’s race for Democrat Dan Malloy. In Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) survived a scandal over having fabricated Vietnam service, capitalizing on a novice opponent, Linda MacMahon, who had defeated veteran moderate Congressman Rob Simmons in a primary.
And that was a good year; it was just the setup for 2012. There were many reasons to think Barack Obama was beatable (to this day, I think both the 2012 and 2004 elections could have gone the other way with different opponents making different decisions). Obama’s approval rating, deep in the dumps much of 2011, was in negative territory most of the way to the Democratic Convention. And then there were the national polls: Obama trailed Romney in the RCP poll average all but two days between October 9 and October 31, and Obama was below 48% in the average every day from October 8 to November 5. In four key states, Romney had leads in the poll average during October: in Colorado, he led from October 9-29; in New Hampshire, he led from October 19-21; in Virginia, from October 19 to November 2; in Florida, from October 8 to the end of the race. And we remember the various other indicators as well – national party ID surveys, polls showing Obama trailing significantly with independent voters, early vote totals in Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Long story short, there were many reasons, even aside from straight-up “poll unskewing,” why Republicans reasonably thought at various points that Mitt Romney would or at least could beat Obama, and even Romney seems to have believed it from his own polls. Of course, it was not to be, and lots of people on the Right ended up feeling like they had wasted their money, their efforts and their hopes, and were instead mocked by liberals who had been certain of victory. Again, it wasn’t just the failure to win but how it happened: the GOP got beat on polling, beat on voter outreach and turnout, and had its famous “ORCA” GOTV system melt down on Election Day. All the behind the scenes stuff, all the things that only a party establishment can do, failed the party and its voters. Turnout was down nationwide, but even a President who couldn’t hold together the coalition that elected him got re-elected by holding together enough while millions of voters stayed home. And Democrats drove the knife with post-election analyses of how demographics alone would inevitably make every future election a replay of 2012.
And that’s before we get to the Senate races. Republicans lost seven Senate races in 2012 where they’d led in the poll averages in mid-September (one, in Wisconsin, where Thommy Thompson had led by nine points), including two deep-red state races where they led all the way to the election (North Dakota and Montana; Rick Berg in North Dakota led by almost six points on Election Day) and blew winnable races in Missouri and Indiana due to Todd Akin’s notorious gaffe. And in 2013, adding insult to injury, Republicans lost a tight Governor’s race in Virginia that was far closer than the polls had suggested – but not close enough. And again, there were recriminations: was Ken Cuccinelli too extreme? Did embittered moderates sabotage him? Did the national party do too little to help him?
The result was an awful lot of gunshy people on the Right who just weren’t sure this was all worth it anymore. Jim Geraghty noted this problem in September of this year:
I am told by some campaign consultants that for much of the past two years, Republican donors have felt a malaise. You see it in both the individual campaign fundraising numbers, the committee fundraising numbers, and the spending by outside groups.
A lot of wealthy Republican donors – or even a not-so-wealthy Republican donors – are asking if it’s worth it. They dug deep to help out their favorite candidates in 2012, and watched their guys lose – Romney, of course, but also a slew of seemingly winnable Senate races. They’re not sure their donations do much good. They’re increasingly wondering if the American political system is a lost cause, if the electorate has become addicted to Democrats’ vote-buying spending programs, too tuned out to care about scandals, oblivious to serious problems and getting their political views shaped by Hollywood and pop culture.
This doesn’t even get into the issue of fearing an IRS audit or being publicly demonized, like the Koch brothers.
Of course, this depression, malaise, and hesitation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After being burned by the surge in Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts in 2012, pundits, pollsters, and prognosticators are understandably jittery about projecting GOP victories.
Geraghty also noted the thick layer of fatalism about election fraud that seems to pervade talk on the Right, especially after close losses:
[F]ear of voting fraud can also turn into a crutch in the minds of Republicans. If every defeat can be attributed to voter fraud, there’s no lesson for Republican campaigns to take from those defeats. And if voter fraud is as pervasive and decisive as some conservatives think, the entire system of elections is a sham; Democrats are destined to cheat their way to victory every time…Comments from conservatives that “Democrats will steal the election” are depressingly common…Don’t let fears of widespread liberal voter fraud deter you from taking action this year, and don’t let anyone tell you your efforts are useless because Democrats are going to steal the election.
In short, after Republicans had blown so many winnable races and been shocked by Election Day results that were worse than what you’d expect at the polls, our side lost a lot of its faith and nerve. And you could see that in a lot of people who had trouble predicting that Republicans would win the Senate this year, even in the face of rather powerful polling evidence that they’d do just that.
But the breadth of 2014’s victories, and the fact that there were no unpleasant surprises or major operational failures, means that Republicans can finally exorcise the demons of the past four years and go into 2016 with greater optimism – not optimism that 2016 will end up looking as easy as 2014 did or that every race will be winnable (even this year, a few went south), but optimism that winnable races can actually be won, that the party has learned something about shooting itself in the foot (even in races with bitter primaries), and that no shadowy conspiracy can “steal” anything but the very closest races.
Just as happened to Karl Rove after 2006, the mystique of the Democrats’ vaunted ground game has been broken. The rage in 2013 was talk of how it really was different now and Democrats had broken the code of using micro-targeting and Big Data to create a perpetual high-turnout machine that would prove a permanent game-changer, one that would fly under the radar of big national polls and produce surprising outcomes, always in Democrats’ favor. This brief article from January 2013 is a classic of the hubris genre:
Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the National Rifle Association as a powerful organization, arguing that President Obama’s campaign apparatus can overwhelm opposition to new gun restrictions.
“The NRA is continually trumpeting [that] they increased their membership by ‘x’ amount in this month,” Gibbs said on Morning Joe today. “The president has the most exciting campaign apparatus ever built. It’s time to turn that loose. It’s time to turn that loose for something more than just an election. If the NRA’s got a list, then Obama for America has a bigger list and it is time to get activated again.”
…Gibbs thinks the Obama campaign can bury the NRA. “This list will get active and it will do things if the person in charge of this list asks them to do so,” he said, suggesting that Obama campaign volunteers should “get on that old pair of shoes that they knocked on doors with and get out there and do something.”
If Gibbs is right, that’ll be a significant improvement over the first term for Democrats. In Massachusetts, for instance, 850,000 Obama voters failed to turn out for Martha Coakley in her doomed campaign against Scott Brown.
As it turned out, the big OFA stories of 2014 were about it winding down its staff and transitioning to prepare the Obama Presidential Library, and while the Obama team’s expertise certainly played a role in improving the party’s overall aptitude for this sort of thing, it played a far smaller role in the election than the underlying fundamental political dynamics of issues, economy, and candidates. The Democrats’ GOTV machine and their much-anticipated early voting blitz turned out not to be nine feet tall and shooting lasers out of their eyes, but just ordinary political operators subject to gravity like everyone else. The midterm electorate looked and voted pretty much like the 2010 electorate.
That doesn’t mean the GOP should be complacent about the challenges ahead, or about learning from its mistakes this time around, some of which proved survivable only because a rising tide lifted a lot of boats. The GOP establishment worked, in Colorado, the way a successful establishment is supposed to – it reccruited the best candidate in to run for the Senate, one in the ideological center of the party who was acceptable to both conservatives and moderates; it found a soft landing for conservative favorite Ken Buck (who won election to the House) while squeezing out more marginal moderate and conservative candidates; it recruited a credible candidate for Governor who, while he lost, sidelind the more divisive Tancredo. But in other states, not so much: Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), for example, should have been talked into retiring and more effort made to find fresh replacements. And two of the establishment’s prized recruits, Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Monica Wehby in Oregon, imploded badly.
And operationally, while the GOP made many positive steps, its shell-shocked pollsters still had trouble calling the wave, clinging to the same outdated 2012 polling models as the public pollsters for fear of being branded with the overoptimism that plagued Romney and, more recently, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Nor have the party’s other challenges – internal divisions on strategy and ideology, mistrust of Beltway leadership, the continuing challenge of outreach to non-white voters – gone away. But after 2014, with the party employing a larger share of the nation’s elected officials nationwide than at any time since the 1940s or maybe even the 1920s, Republicans can now turn to the task of tackling those challenges without feeling like there’s an inevitable Lucy-pulls-the-football surprise at the end.
Then there’s the Democrats. 2014 has not had as negative an effect on Democrats’ morale as its positive effect on Republicans, in large part because of 1) the depth of Democrats’ belief in Emerging Democratic Majority theory, i.e., that demographics will make the Democrats increasingly unbeatable over time, and 2) supreme confidence in the superior electability of Hillary Clinton as the First Woman President™. Those too are topics best explored in more depth another day, but it should be noted that if you re-run the 2014 election with the demographics of the 2012 election, almost every major Republican candidate except maybe Thom Tillis still wins, and – as Nate Cohn of the New York Times explains – Republican success in 2016 may not be as dependent on improving with Hispanic voters as people think. And there are reasons to think that Republicans did better with Hispanic voters and Asian voters than anyone expected, to the point where left-wing polling groups like Latino Decisions and its cousin Asian Decisions, having badly blown their pre-election efforts to unskew the polls and argue people like Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) were really winning, and now left trying to argue with exit polls that match up with the actual final results of the election.
But if 2014’s losses haven’t yet penetrated Democrats’ confidence in demographics, they have left the party a little more wary of assuming that white voters don’t matter anymore; for example, even Greg Sargent, a reliable barometer of the mood of Beltway Democrats, is concerned that President Obama’s executive amnesty may prove hard to sell. And this Dave Weigel tweet pretty well captures the Democrats’ bewilderment that just waiting around for Republicans to self-destruct might not be a perennially successful strategy for governing:
Like 90% of current Democratic strategy is waiting for the Republicans to tear off their shirts and go crazy.
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) November 18, 2014
At a minimum, Democrats are starting to wake up to the possibility, dismissed in the wake of 2012, that polls might occasionally deliver bad news for Democrats that turns out to be true, that Republicans who think they are winning might be right, and that the Democratic Party’s leadership might not always know what it’s doing. And they are surely waking up to the reality that mechanisms like early voting and micro-targeting of voters on Facebook are no substitute for having a popular party and message.
And if professional Democrats are feeling a little chastened, rank and file voters and progressive activists are feeling something closer to the exhaustion faced by Bush supporters at this point in 2006. Compare, just to pick an example, this passage from a Slate review of Jon Stewart’s new movie:
I have a framed photo of Jon Stewart in my office, a thumbnail portrait of his face caught mid–George W. Bush impersonation and reproduced 40 times in a grid pattern. It was a 40th birthday gift from the person with whom I spent both Bush II terms watching The Daily Show as if for dear life. Stewart’s expert skewering of the administration’s quotidian idiocies and gaslighting self-justifications was like our nightly missive from the far-distant land of political and moral sanity. I am sure I’m not the only American who feels certain she might have a long arrest record for screaming publicly at newspaper headlines if not for the release provided by that show’s regular dose of humanist irony. Whether because of the end of the Bush years or the arrival of my daughter (both blessed events greeted by joyous weeping), I no longer watch The Daily Show every night. But whenever I do catch it, it’s a reminder that Stewart and his ninja-level writing team are still out there fighting the good fight against political ridiculousness in all its forms.
with this, from the Washington Post’s latest profile of Stewart:
Jon Stewart is tired.
Nursing an iced coffee in a Washington hotel room, where the Comedy Central host recently entertained interviews on the subject of his filmmaking debut, “Rosewater,” Stewart doesn’t hesitate before answering a question about what his plans might be after his contract with “The Daily Show” expires next fall: “A nap.”
…If Stewart sounds less like an outraged comic — or a rabble-rousing filmmaker — than a politician, he is quick to put the kibosh on any speculation that his post-“Daily Show” career might include a run for public office.
With all his talk about transparency and the moral universe — and with a new film out championing press freedom — wouldn’t a lot of people, or at least brokenhearted progressives, vote for him?
“You don’t know that,” he says with a laugh, “except in the way that people would vote for a second-string quarterback to take over for the first-string quarterback if they are feeling frustration at their team’s goals. And then five minutes into the first quarter, after two interceptions, you’re like, ‘F— that guy. Get him out.’ ”
Besides, Stewart insists, he doesn’t have the right “skill set” for the job.
It’s the casual invocation of “brokenhearted progressives” that really drives the knife there. And that’s where the 2014 election reflects, to some extent, more the result than the cause of sagging Democratic morale. The magic, the excitement, the belief in endless possibility offered by Obama in 2008 has given way to a grinding rearguard action that just isn’t much fun.
Anyway, Democrats won’t stay down forever, just as Republicans have repeatedly defied predictions of their imminent demise. Republicans may or may not have enough gas in the tank for victory in 2016, but for the first time in years, they can at least feel like the roadmap isn’t lying to them about how far the trip is.