Wavesmanship: The Battle for the Midterm 'Mandate'

The four arguments you'll likely hear after the polls close.

Ezra Klein is up with an article explaining that "if the 2012 election was only in the states voting for Senate today, Romney would have won." It's the latest in a string of Vox pieces about how "Republicans [can] be less popular than Democrats yet headed for a landslide," and it captures what most poli sci wonks on the left will say tomorrow. The 2014 election map is just spectacularly slanted toward Republicans. If the GOP won only the Senate races in states won by Mitt Romney, the GOP would take the Senate. If the GOP won only the races in states won in 2004 by George W. Bush (i.e., Romney states plus Iowa and Colorado), it would hold a 54-46 majority.

The race is on to define the real mandate of 2014, on the left and the right. You can clip and save the four main arguments, and see who makes them tomorrow. (Caveat: If Democrats defy the polling averages and hold the Senate, even by one seat, strategists on every side admit that they blew it and that Harry Reid can do a victory lap around the stadium of his choice.)

There was no Republican mandate if the party only won in red states

See Patrick Egan's write-up in The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog. "This year’s Senate elections are unrepresentative of the nation to an extent that is unprecedented in elections held in the post-war era," wrote Egan, an associate professor at NYU. TNR's Jonathan Cohn took that argument and added a map.

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Jonathan Cohn, TNR

Where's California? Where's Pennsylvania? Where's New York? The Cohn map asks you to consider the fundamentally skewed nature of the election. The subliminal message, to Democrats, is that they must avoid panicking after the election and saying something stupid like "it was a shellacking" or "it was a referendum on Barack Obama." How could it be when, say, Arkansas's Tom Cotton and West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito are running far behind Mitt Romney's margins? Mandate-making states: Iowa and Colorado. If Democrats win just one of them, they'll argue that the GOP failed to expand its reach. 

Nope, sorry, the Republican Party won the future

After 2012, Republican leaders realized that 1) Democrats had them beat on technology and 2) non-white voters were threatening their holds on previously red states like Virginia and Arizona and Georgia ... and Texas. Orca, the Romney-Ryan campaign's turnout program, failed spectacularly. This year, no matter how the party does, there will be a wild grab for credit over who outsmarted the Democrats. Reince Priebus's RNC, with its investment in minority outreach? The Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, which helped prevent kooks from winning GOP Senate bids in Alaska and North Carolina? Americans for Prosperity, which has courted media attention for its latest mass mobilization of "voter-educating" precinct-walkers?

How about all of them? The Chamber, the RNC, et al, are already preparing to declare victory for the "establishment." There will be maps comparing Mitt Romney's itinerary to Hillary Clinton's, and crowing over how the guy Republican donors wanted in 2012 was, eventually, the people's choice. Mandate-making state: Texas, where the GOP got spooked by the Democratic registration campaign of Battleground Texas, aggressively reached out to Latino and Asian voters, and is already declaring victory. "Battleground makes the people who designed Orca look like geniuses," crows Dave Carney, a strategist for likely gubernatorial victor Greg Abbott.

Actually, no, there was a real mandate for conservatives

One year ago, polling and punditry suggested that Republicans had destroyed their brand by shutting down the government to defund the Affordable Care Act. How can that hold up if the GOP takes the Senate? In the past few days, we've already seen Senator Ted Cruz emerge with pre-buttals to Republican moderates. "I think we have seen election after election that when Republicans fail to draw a clear distinction with the Democrats, when we run to the mushy middle, we lose," he told Robert Costa and Sebastian Payne this week. Implication: The GOP made no such mistake this time, and hey, look who won?

Worried moderates are already trying to prevent this meme. It clings to interviews with Republicans like Representative Kevin McCarthy, who are talking about 2014 as a mandate for deals and action. "The desire of McCarthy and other GOP leaders to avoid a characterization of their party as the party of no—of obstructionism but no ideas—by showing an ability to govern, will come into conflict with a GOP base that wants to continue the take-no-prisoners approach," wrote Norm Ornstein last week, part of his snowflake flurry of articles talking down a GOP win. The worry is real: As the explainer-journos will tell you, the GOP could blow every purple state race, and win a Senate majority anyway. What does that say to conservatives, who were told that they're ruined the party by opposing Obamacare? Obviously they didn't. Mandate-making states: Wisconsin, where Scott Walker will have defeated the labor movement three times; New Hampshire, where Scott Brown, if he wins, does so after excoriating "amnesty."

Actually, both parties lost!

This is the least likely of the three arguments to survive, and requires the heaviest lifting and wildest results. Its appeal to pundits and donors vastly outmatches its credibility. And yet: If Senator Pat Roberts goes down to an independent candidate, if an independent/Democrat fusion ticket wins in Alaska, and if independents and third party candidates live up to their strong numbers across the states, there'll be more attention paid to polling that had most Americans hating the two parties and resenting their choices. Mandate-making state: Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback is even likelier to lose than Roberts, thanks to crossover Republican votes rebelling against his ALEC-on-speed policies.