A 'true national election'? Not really

A voter casts her ballot at a polling site in Georgia on May 16, 2014. (David Goldman/AP)
A voter casts her ballot at a polling site in Georgia on May 16, 2014.
During the White House press briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested to the media that many conclusions will be drawn from this year's elections, but these lessons should be different from "a true national election."
The right balked. If there are elections nationwide, how can it not be a true national election?
The answer has everything to do with who's voting where. Obviously, all U.S. House races are up every other year, but they're hardly a great barometer of a national race -- in 2012, Democratic House candidates earned 1 million more votes than Republican House candidates, but Dems still ended up in the minority.
But the Senate is a different story. You may have heard about "structural" considerations that give Republicans a natural, built-in advantage in 2014, but it's worth appreciating exactly what that means. Jonathan Cohn had a good piece on this overnight.

Senators serve staggered, six-year terms. And it so happens that the states with Senate elections this year are disproportionately conservative. How do we know this? One way is by looking at how those states voted in 2012, the most recent presidential election year. In the actual election that took place, with all 50 states plus the District of Columbia voting, Obama won handily over Mitt Romney. Obama got 332 electoral votes, while Romney got just 206. But if the electorate in 2012 had consisted only of voters living in states participating in this year's Senate elections, Romney would have won comfortably, with 165 electoral votes to Obama's 130.

This is no small detail. It's not a true national election because we're dealing with a shrunken U.S. map -- one where the electorate is far more Republican than the country overall.
Patrick Egan did a terrific job digging into the data, concluding:

Taken together, the rules on seat allotments and classes have yielded a Senate election cycle in 2014 that is profoundly unrepresentative of the nation as whole -- and particularly tough for Democrats. [...] Simply put, this year's Senate elections are unrepresentative of the nation to an extent that is unprecedented in elections held in the post-war era. So when we begin to sift through the results on Election Night, the number of Senate seats won and lost will tell us less than we might like about where the two parties stand in the minds of American voters.

Just so we're clear, this is not to say geography alone is determinative. President Obama won Colorado twice, and voters there appear likely to elect their most far-right senator in state history. President Obama won Iowa twice, and Hawkeye State voters apparently intend to elect the most radical senator Capitol Hill has seen in many years.
The point, though, is that geography has given the GOP an edge it would otherwise lack. The structural considerations have tilted the playing field in ways that put Democrats at a disadvantage before a single ballot was cast.
In September 2012 -- 26 months ago -- the Washington Post ran a piece with this headline: "A GOP Senate majority? Just wait for 2014." Aaron Blake reported at the time that the map would be "murderous" for Democrats in 2014 and Republicans would have "a great chance" to take control of the chamber after the midterms.
It's not because Blake has a crystal ball; it's because he could see these obvious structural advantages. Throw in some key retirements, dark money from the far-right, and the public blaming Obama for congressional Republicans' refusal to govern, and we're left with a recipe for Democratic failure.
As a practical matter, most of the country won't know or care about any of this, but Earnest's assessment about this not being "a true national election" has the benefit of being true.