The 2014 midterm elections are rapidly approaching. Next week many Americans (well, probably more like 40% of them) will head to the polls to decide the composition of Congress during the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency. Healthcare, immigration, the administration’s treatment of the Iraq/Syria conflict and latest Ebola outbreak will serve as prominent avenues of attack for the GOP and points of retreat for many Democratic candidates.
As always, conservative candidates have indulged in their usual series of idiotic statements, ludicrous claims (see above), and childish behavior. The Democrats have likewise made their fair share of ill-advised advertisements, statements and non-statements all topped off with a healthy dollop of academic dishonesty. Not limited to the partisan frey, even universities are getting in on the action this year. Indeed, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping gaffes and the cross-aisle bickering remains as as fervent as ever. However, there is a distinctly muted aura that has surrounded this year’s campaigning. Even with the fate of the Congressional majority hanging in the balance, Americans simply aren’t interested in next week’s election, and it shows. As a result, the media has produced a startlingly broad consensus on two primary and very much intertwined electoral themes.
First, you have a unanimous forecast of an overwhelming Republican victory. Estimates currently place the chance of a successful Republican consolidation of a Senate majority at various degrees of likelihood. Most exceeding 50% by a very comfortable margin and have been increasing steadily since about mid-month. The Washington Post place the chances of a GOP victory in the Senate at 93%, The New York Times puts them at 66%, YouGov at 63%, and FiveThirtyEight at 62.3%. While this is certainly in line with the majority of the statistical models, the (editorial, not mathematical) certainty with which these predictions are being touted is unusual. Consequently, the dominant narratives have been those featuring liberal America lethargically resigning itself to a predetermined result.
Interestingly, the introduction of “big data” to mass media and the rise of the infographic have given a new angle to the American love of statistics and cemented the role of the pollster in contemporary politics. It seems as though the “triumph” of nerd-prophet Nate Silver in predicting the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election has inspired a sense of reverence among a new generation of Americans (at least those who consume news media) for the projections of popular number-crunchers.
Backing up these relatively dense and technically-oriented predictions have been a series of pieces that remind the electorate of these conclusions. Even back in September, Fox News’ headlines have highlighted the “gloomy” democratic prospects, while Hill contributors are certain of the GOP’s “big victory in the Senate, House and statehouses”, and Bloomberg editors jumping at the chance to “be the first to congratulate Republicans on their victory“. While I am certainly not suggesting that the Democrats are likely to win (or even retain control of the Senate), dismal Democratic midterm performances may not be as certain as the President may think.
The second, and far more amusing, theme of the upcoming election is the absolute insistence that they are both a) boring and b) not even really about anything substantial. The extent to which the media has rallied around this motif is impressive. Nate Silver, the aforementioned patron saint of millennial stat-fodder, said back in mid-2013 that this is “not a super interesting year in politics” and proclaimed that the 2014 midterms will be “dull“. The Atlantic ran an article from Peter Beinart that explains how the relatively “low stakes” of this election are to blame for the fact that it’s “so boring“. New York Times contributor David Brooks called it “the most boring and uncreative campaign I can remember“, while The New Republic ran an article with the title It’s Not Just You. The Midterms Are Boring. Even the more vigorously partisan outlets are running the message: The American Conservative published The Boring Midterms about the aforementioned Atlantic piece while MSNBC’s Morning Joe discussed David Brooks’ remarks.
This is taken a step further by several outlets claiming that not only are the midterms boring, but they don’t even have any substance to speak of either. An NBC article proclaimed that “the 2014 election sounds at times like a campaign about nothing“, while The New Republic’s Guide to Midterm Elections asserts that “if you want to talk about policy, you’ll have to wait until 2016“. Gloria Border of CNN capitalized on the sentiment of the former, explaining that “to a degree, this is a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing“. While the majority of these articles admit that the election results will likely not be inconsequential, they’re all united in condemning the vapidity of political discourse as if it were unique to this particular election.
The battle for control over the trajectory of American politics exists much as it has for the past few decades. The intense political polarization of Americans is well–documented and looks to be increasing with each passing year. I’ve written before about how so-called “Independents” are really anything but and the decreasing number of swing voters in America is fast becoming a defining element of electoral strategy, two points raised by Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt in their Washington Post article The 2014 campaign is a campaign about nothing. As familiar as we now are with this theme, Drutman and Schmitt astutely judge that the acute lack of “ideological overlap” between parties and lack of incentives for aisle-crossing centrism are driving the high-cost/low-substance character of the 2014 elections. The intense and deep-seated polarization in Congress reflects the American flight from the center.
While the 2014 midterms may come to be defined by their monotony, there are still a few reasons to tune in. For one, there are a few interesting candidates. There’s a cartoon cat-tie wearing pizza guy (who “actually does” smoke marijuana) and an American (almost) Idol, both pursuing Congressional office. There are also a few (legitimately) important issue items such as the potential “second wave” of marijuana legalization which could have profound effects, not only on the future of the drug’s legality on a national scale but also on the recently reinvigorated debate over D.C. statehood. The success of certain campaigns will likely also influence the future of the debate surrounding “dark money” in politics and the 2010 Citizens United ruling. Of course there is also the off-chance of an upset victory. This is most interesting in the case of Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is benefiting from the public assistance of populist heavy-hitter Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her attempt to attempt to unseat the current Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
Besides, there’s always the presidential election looming in the distance. And if you think that the problem with this election is a lack of exciting new blood, just wait until we’re confronted with Bush vs. Clinton in 2016.