In 2014, Low Turnout, Gerrymandering, President’s Unpopularity Led to GOP Victories

Nationally, voter turnout in 2014 was lowest in 70 years. Just 36.4 percent of eligible voters turned out. Click. Low voter turnout suggests a disengaged and cynical electorate that is not paying much attention and does not believe their votes matter. They know the economy’s not what they want it to be and Obama is president, so he gets the blame. That may be as sophisticated an analysis as is needed to explain what happened.

Republicans took the Senate by gaining Democratic seats in North Carolina (incumbent Kay Hagan lost), Colorado (incumbent Mark Udall lost), Arkansas (incumbent Mark Pryor lost), Iowa (incumbent Tom Harkin retired), West Virginia (incumbent Jay Rockefeller retired) and Louisiana (incumbent Mary Landrieu was beaten in runoff). And by increasing their majority in the House of Representatives.

You’d have to zoom in on each of those races to see how the campaigns were run, what the issues were, the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, before determining if a national pattern emerged.

Much has been made of President Obama’s unpopularity during the 2014 election cycle. Republican hyper-partisans would like to interpret the midterm election results as a total repudiation of every Obama policy. But presidents in their sixth year are almost always unpopular. Republicans George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower in their sixth years saw Democrats gain seats in Congress — 1958, 1974, 1986, and 2006 were big Democratic years. Lyndon Johnson definitely endured a Republican comeback in 1966 after his landslide victory in 1964. This is normal.

There is one exception to this rule in modern political history. Bill Clinton, eye-deep in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, did not see his party lose seats in 1998. The public tried to send a message to Congress not to waste time impeaching Clinton, but the Republican House defied public wishes and did it anyway.

GOP Surge or Theft?: “How dark money and voter disenfranchisement combined in a toxic brew that resulted in the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years, hampering whatever chance Democrats had to win.”

Gerrymandering. Republicans won 57% of House races in 2014 but won 52% of the popular vote. Republicans control 60% of the House despite just a 52-48% popular vote win in 2014 and after losing the popular vote for those races in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

In 2012, Republicans won a lopsided majority of seats despite securing only 48 percent of the vote, about the same vote share as Democrats this year. To keep the House in 2014, Republican needed only 45 percent of votes. Click.

And yet blaming dark money, voter disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering entirely for Democratic losses smacks of sour grapes. Republicans are sure to interpret their Senate victories as vindication of state and national policies they support or oppose, and a sign, for example, that North Carolina has turned into a solidly Republican state, what with a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, and now, two Republican U.S. Senators.

NC As Microcosm. Tom Tillis won the US Senate race in North Carolina against Kay Hagan by 50,000 votes. “Nearly five times as many voters in 2010 used the voting reforms eliminated by the North Carolina GOP — 200,000 voted during the now-eliminated first week of early voting, 20,000 used same-day registration and 7,000 cast out-of-precinct ballots,” Ari Berman writes.

NC African-American voters turned out at 71.9% in 2008, and 70.3% in 2012. But in both midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, it dipped below 40%. A combination of routine off-year election disengagement and voter restrictions in early voting was probably the reason.

After cutting education spending and promoting private schools as Speaker of the House in the state legislature, Tillis ran on a pro public-education platform, bragging about raising teacher salaries in 2014. Indeed, his abrupt change in tone in the final weeks of the campaign, making positive statements rather than negative attacks, may have been what pushed him over the top, the New Republic speculated.

NC was the costliest Senate race in recorded history, in which more than $111 million was spent by both sides. The negative ads against Hagan started early, blaming her (and Obama) for everything from the rise of ISIS to Ebola in Africa. Political consultant Eric Ose observed that Tillis benefited from two factors:

(1) Wealthy right-wing outside groups led by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove spent tens of millions on attack ads and get-out-the-vote efforts against Hagan.

(2) Democratic voters were fired up about opposing Thom Tillis and the GOP agenda in North Carolina, but not overwhelmingly behind Kay Hagan.

He points out that

voters who earned less than $30,000 a year only made up 19 percent of the 2014 electorate, down from25 percent in 2012. This was a body blow to Democrats, because the ones who did vote backed Hagan 63 percent – 30 percent. By contrast, 24 percent of all voters made more than $100,000, and went for Tillis by a 59 percent – 39 percent margin.

44 percent of North Carolina voters named the economy as the top issue facing the country, and split 52 percent -44 percent for Tillis. 64 percent of N.C. voters who cast ballots this year favored a higher minimum wage, according to exit polls. But 29 percent of them voted for Tillis, even though he explicitly opposed it, and Hagan wanted to raise it to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage was one of the few economic issues where she drew a sharp contrast between herself and her opponent, but an insufficient number of low-income voters noticed.

Click for his full analysis.

Hagan’s strategists say they ran a good campaign and only wish the election was in August rather than November.


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