What really happened in the 2014 elections

Despite a Republican midterm sweep, fundamentals dictate a 2016 shift back to Democrats, argues veteran analyst Ed Kilgore in a new book.

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Among the most-watched contests of the 2014 elections was the battle between then- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Democrats – enticed by the chance to replace a deeply unpopular McConnell with a rising female star – poured enormous hope and resources into Grimes’ campaign.

Ultimately, despite campaign investments that totaled nearly $30 million (including close to $12 million in spending from outside groups), Grimes lost decisively, 56 percent to 41 percent. Television networks called Kentucky for McConnell as early as 7:00 p.m. EST on Election Night – the first in a series of stinging Democratic defeats that led to a Republican takeover of the Senate and an even stronger grip on the House.

Throughout the campaign, many polls had showed Grimes tied or even ahead of McConnell. But in the weeks leading up to the election, media coverage focused on what many considered a defining “gaffe” by Grimes – her repeated refusals to say whether she had voted for President Obama.

While some say this was the moment that cost Grimes the campaign, veteran political analyst Ed Kilgore argues against what he calls the “game change” theory of the 2014 election results.

As he argues in his new book, Election 2014: Why the Republicans Swept the Midterms, singular moments and specific strategies didn’t seal the fate of Grimes and her fellow Democrats. Rather, they were up against much stronger forces that made the 2014 defeats virtually inevitable. As Kilgore argues: “[T]he 2014 midterms were relatively predictable and almost entirely explainable by a set of ‘fundamental’ factors … that all favored the Republican candidates.”

However, he also writes, these fundamentals point to another pendulum shift – this time toward Democrats – in 2016. And he cautions against the dominance of “game change” political journalism that neglects these fundamentals. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

What do you mean by “fundamentals” and their role in the 2014 election?

Kilgore: It’s a word used a lot by political scientists, but it can mean different things to different people. Most people who say “fundamentals” have a narrower definition of them than I do, often because they’re trying to create a mathematical predictive model [for electoral results]. There are whole predictive models based on nothing other than GDP growth.

I’ve tried to define it pretty clearly in the book: The “fundamentals” are those external factors affecting elections that are completely beyond the control of individual candidates or campaigns. That includes the economic environment; the president’s approval rating; the point you’re in within a particular party control cycle; and the landscape, which means which contests are contested where. The final factor, which has become very important in midterms especially, is predictable turnout patterns: who votes in which election and how.

Those are all “fundamentals,” and those are all things that you can’t really explain with what I call the “game change” approach to political journalism, where candidates, campaigns, events and specific moments control the outcome.

Can you give a specific example of how these fundamentals played out in 2014 – for example, midterm turnout patterns?

Kilgore: This is something people are often confused about. There is a very, very longstanding pattern in elections in this country in which younger voters and minority voters turn out in very low levels in midterms or in nonpresidential elections.

There are a lot of different theories for that. Young people don’t tend to be connected to a particular place; they tend to move a lot. They’re not homeowners, so they’re not invested in a particular place. Presidential elections may get their attention, but not so much non-presidential elections. Minority folks also tend to be more mobile, work the kind of jobs that make it hard to vote and are not as invested in down-ballot elections. Meanwhile, the people who do disproportionately tend to vote in midterm elections are older and whiter. This has been the case for decades – as far back as people have been measuring it.

What makes it so important now is that the people who do and don’t vote in midterm elections tend to be highly correlated with one of the two parties – to the benefit of Republicans. This has an awful lot to do with the herky-jerky nature of electoral outcomes in the last few years – how Democrats were able to win in 2008 and 2012 and lose in 2010 and 2014.

The reason people get confused is that they don’t seem to understand that these demographic patterns have been here for a long time. They want to say that Democrats didn’t turn out in 2010 and 2014 because they were “discouraged.” There are all kinds of things that people read into lower Democratic turnout in midterms. But the fact is that whether people are excited or bored or discouraged or encouraged, they don’t tend to participate in non-presidential elections. Maybe enthusiasm can affect that at the margins, but not all that much.

So what does that say about the efficacy of micro-targeted “get-out-the-vote” efforts?

Kilgore: What it says is that they’re pushing against some pretty high resistance. It doesn’t mean that those efforts cannot be successful. And by the way, micro-targeting isn’t just a matter of pushing people toward the polls – it’s also a matter of determining which voters, on a spectrum of potentially available voters, are most likely to turn out.

There’s some evidence that in some races the Democratic investment in micro-targeting did have some positive results. It just wasn’t enough in enough places to make a huge difference.

What about moments that did seem defining in 2014, such as the rollout of the Affordable Care Act – which arguably benefitted Republicans – and the government shutdown – which arguably favored Democrats?

Kilgore: Those were important things, and they may have had an effect. But they played into the fundamentals.

When most people write about campaigns, it’s more about “this candidate committed this gaffe on this day,” or “this kind of money went into this state at this moment, and it all changed.” By and large, you’re better served paying attention to fundamentals. Individual events in a campaign very often tend to fade over time or cancel each other out.

How fundamental are these fundamentals then? What, if anything, would break what you call these “metronomic” swings between Democratic wins in presidential years and Republican wins in midterms?

Kilgore: It won’t be easy. But one way out of this particular trap for both parties is to change their coalitions.

For example, the last time Democrats had a really good midterm in 2006, they broke even among seniors – a constituency that is now the most Republican-leaning age group of them all. If Democrats can make a comeback among these voters – who tend to have a very high propensity to vote – they could change the current pattern.

Similarly, if Republicans want to do better in presidential elections, they need to have better results with young and minority voters.

There’s nothing necessarily inevitable about the partisan alignments we have right now. And when you’re talking about age cohorts, they also change over time. The over-65 demographic is increasingly going to be composed of Baby Boomers in the years ahead – a group that’s a little more likely to lean Democratic than their predecessors. Hispanic voters also now tend to vote Democratic by two-to-one or better, at least in presidential elections. But the longer an immigrant group is in the country, they prosper economically and become more likely to vote Republican. These things can change over time.

But there probably isn’t any silver bullet that either party can use to change these dynamics right away.

One of the themes in your book is the neglect of these fundamentals by the political press, which seem more driven by a “quest for narrative.” What specific impacts have you seen?

Kilgore: There’s an extraordinary amount of journalistic resources devoted to political coverage, and there’s intense competition to develop narratives that can, frankly, be imposed upon the results. And I think there’s a natural tendency among journalists to come up with a comforting rationalization for developments that they don’t understand or really like.

I’ve been writing for years about how the mainstream media has been trying to bury the Christian right. Any evidence whatsoever that they’re losing influence is trumpeted to the high heavens. But if you look at the array of people running for the 2016 presidential nomination and how they talk, the Christian right is still around.

What I wrote about in the book is the big media narrative that after losing the presidency in 2012, the Republican Party was in the process of “taming” the Tea Party movement and conservative ideologues in general. It affected the coverage of the Republican primary enormously and even in the general election. I think it tended to create a soft-pedaling of the focus on Republican candidates that might not have existed otherwise.

What kind of coverage would you prefer to see?

I would like to see more public debate on midterm elections and more coverage of presidential elections that’s less personality based – a little less “Game Change-y.”

Among people who write about politics, there’s a gap between the people who tend to be political scientists or are data-oriented and the pure journalists who tend to want to talk about personalities, big moments, campaign infrastructure, things like that. I’m trying to navigate between the two.

We really need to get out of this way of thinking and writing about politics in which one group is hostile to data – data’s always good, more information is always good, it’s how you use it that matters – and another group that’s hostile to anything that doesn’t fit into a model. Politics is more complicated than that, and what I’m trying to do with this book is to best I could what really happened and why, and not have to belong to a particular “school.”

What should candidates who read your book take away as the lessons of 2014?

Kilgore: We tend to assume that the future is a linear extrapolation of the present and immediate past. And the winners in any particular election cycle – particularly if it’s a very clear victory – have a vested interest in suggesting that [their win] is predictive of the next election and represents some sort of clear trend.

The basic thrust of my book is that this is a cyclical election, not part of a linear process, and that the very factors that helped Republicans win in 2010 and 2014 and helped Democrats win in 2008 and 2012 were likely – but not certain – to produce a countertrend in 2016.

Individual candidates should take from this book that you should be careful when you run – you have to be in the right year and in the right place.

I also can’t over-emphasize the landscape issue.

The best example is the U.S. Senate. There was a wildly positive landscape for Republican Senate candidates in 2014 with a very high number of seats up for election that were held by Democrats in states where Mitt Romney and John McCain won. The 2016 landscape is even more wildly pro-Democratic. And in 2018, there may be the most pro-Republican Senate landscape ever. The landscape matters an awful lot.

In terms of broader patterns in American politics and what we should take away from 2014, Republicans need to avoid the temptation of triumphalism – of the belief that their ideology won them this victory and that 2016 will simply represent the culmination of a long, inevitable trend in their favor – briefly interrupted by Barack Obama.

And I think Democrats can take away from 2014 the positive understanding that a lot of the things that made it so hard for them to win in 2014 simply won’t exist in a presidential year. But they too have to find some way to break out of this trap where every four years, there’s an election they have a hard time winning. That’s what I wanted to convince people of with this book.

Ed Kilgore is the chief writer for the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and the author of Election 2014: Why the Republicans Swept the Midterms, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Anne Kim is the editor of Republic 3.0.

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