An entrance, not an exit poll.

Don't Freak Out Over the Exit Polls

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Before the polls close, here are a few thoughts about how to deal with the results.

First, figuring out Who Won can be tricky enough. Just counting the winners versus losers in the thousands of elections won't do. Neither will counting total votes cast for Democrats and Republicans.

Sure, sometimes the outcome is so lopsided (in favor of Republicans in 1994 and 2010, or Democrats in 2006 and 2008) that it's easy. And Republicans are rightly going to be happy if they reach 52 or even 53 Senate seats and add to their House majority.

On the other hand, Senate elections in this cycle presented a terrific playing field for Republicans. Just by luck, the states with Senate elections in 2014 are far more Republican than the nation as a whole. And because it was six years after the Democratic landslide of 2008, the pickup opportunities were plentiful.

Second, we shouldn't focus too much on close elections when evaluating the year as a whole. We've been focused tightly on those close ones, such as the governor's races in Wisconsin or Massachusetts. But it's more important, in some ways, that Republican Governor John Kasich will be easily re-elected in swing-state Ohio and that Republican Governor Tom Corbett is an apparent loser in swing-state Pennsylvania.

Yes, governors matter, and Democrats are probably going to gain a bit. State legislatures matter, too; we have less information there, but Republican gains are likely.

Then there's the question of why the elections turned out the way they did. What effect did Barack Obama have? Anger over the economy? Other issues? Be careful here, too. Yes, Obama has a 42 percent approval rating. Beyond that, it's tricky. People's explanations of their votes in exit polls are notoriously unreliable. Causation often works this way: First decide how to vote, then figure out why.

Finally, what happens when victorious candidates claim their "mandate"? Most of this is nonsense: Mandates are, more than anything, just what the winning party is able to do based on how many seats it wins. Winning by larger margins doesn't give politicians any extra authority or moral license to act. As for the losing party, the remaining politicians can choose rejectionist tactics or try to cut deals, or capitulate.

So how individual politicians interpret elections can matter -- even if it has only a tenuous connection to what the voters were really thinking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net