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The paradox of the 2014 midterms

The question probably haunts Democrats on a daily basis: why would Americans reward the party they don't like and don't agree with?
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.
Gallup released an interesting poll last week showing the favorable/unfavorable ratings for the two major parties. The data was consistent with the other data: Democratic popularity, which has been pretty steady over last several years, far exceeds that of Republicans. Indeed, GOP popularity is actually pretty dreadful, hovering around its lowest point since 1998 -- which coincidentally is the last time a two-term Democratic president was approaching his sixth-year midterms.
The same day, the New York Times' Brendan Nyhan reported that Democrats also enjoy sizable advantages on which party the public trusts on the major issues of the day, including the economy.
As we discussed a couple of months ago, an observer who just arrived in the United States with no prior knowledge of our political system might look at the landscape and assume Democrats are positioned for a terrific year. Republicans have no accomplishments; they're broadly unpopular; they're on the wrong side of the major issues of the day; their agenda is out of step with the American mainstream; and not too long ago, they shut down the government for reasons that still don't make any sense. Congressional ineptitude has reached unprecedented levels, and pretty much everyone understands that an uncompromising GOP is to blame.
And yet, Republicans will almost certainly have a great year anyway, as a new Politico poll reminds us. The question probably haunts Democrats on a daily basis: why would Americans reward the party they don't like and don't agree with?
Ezra Klein's explanation rings true.

The biggest problem with these kinds of questions is that the electorate isn't made up of "voters". It's made up of people who actually go to the polls to vote. The Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Democrats actually have a one percentage point edge in voter intentions this year (which is, of course, inside the margin of error). But as Jaime Fuller notes, poll respondents who say they're "certain" to actually go out and vote look a lot more Republican. Then there's what Nyhan calls "the structural factors." He names "presidential approval, the state of the economy, the type of election (midterm or presidential year) and the composition of the seats that are up for election." That last is particularly important this year. Democrats are defending 21 seats in the Senate to the GOP's 15. If that number was flipped -- as it more than will be in the 2016 election, where Democrats are expected to be defending 10 Senate seats to the GOP's 24 -- Democrats would be in much better shape.

Both of these observations are clearly correct, though the former is especially compelling.
Democratic leaders recognize the problem; they're just not sure what to do about it. Robert Gibbs explained on "Meet the Press" recently, "We're looking at a midterm election where the electorate is much less likely to look like a presidential, and much more to look like 2010," which means an older, less diverse group of voters.
David Plouffe added soon after, "We have a turnout issue.... This is a screaming siren that the same problems that afflicted us" in 2010 when Democrats lost control of the House "could face us again."
It's not that rank-and-file Democratic voters never show up for midterm elections; it just seems to take quite a bit to get them engaged in non-presidential cycles. In 1998, for example, Dems turned out because Republicans had launched a ridiculous impeachment crusade. In 2006, Democrats showed up, fueled by outrage over Bush/Cheney and, among other things, opposition to the war in Iraq.
By all appearances, the party's voters feel no comparable motivation this year. This, coupled with structural elements, helps make clear why being more popular and agreeing with voters on the issues they care about probably won't make a difference.