15 Things We Learned Last Night
Yesterday I posted a list of things I'd be looking at in the midterm elections. Last night I got answers to some of those questions; I'm still looking for others. So here are some things I think we learned:
- The Tea Party has matured from an uncontrolled explosion into a focused weapon. In previous cycles, the Tea Party often hurt as much as it helped. They cost Republicans precious seats in key races, such as the push to oust Harry Reid. Some of their candidates dragged down the ticket by saying moronic things about women and rape. They forced their preferred party to waste money defending primaries in swing districts that were going to have trouble electing a very conservative candidate or re-electing one who managed to ride in on a wave.
This time around, the establishment forced out truly damaging candidates, such as Mississippi's Chris McDaniel. The Tea Party turned into a powerful force that moved out the base and elected more conservative candidates without foisting candidates onto the party that were too conservative to maintain a stable position in their districts. Novice candidates got much better at avoiding gaffes that would end up on the airwaves. Democrats who have enjoyed the benefit of Tea Party gaffes are going to have to get busy running for something rather than against those crazy Republicans who think women can't get pregnant from rape.
- The "War on Women" is a dud. Abortion-rights activists are a cherished part of the Democratic base. But the last few years of crazy Republican gaffes gave too many strategists the idea that this issue was a growing electoral asset that could help them win more women, moving those voters out to the polls come Election Day. When the gaffes went away, Democrats kept pounding the issue in the hopes that the dead horse would rise and walk again. Last night showed the limits of that strategy. Democrats still have an edge with single women, a growing demographic. But abortion rights are not the most important issue for the majority of that demographic, and Republicans are getting better -- not good, but better -- at crafting appealing strategies on that issue, such as support for over-the-counter birth control.
- Latinos are still a big problem for Republicans. They did better with Latinos than they did in 2012, which is not surprising, because they did better with every demographic than they did in 2012. However, they did worse with Latinos than they did in 2010. With 50 million Latinos living in this country, many of them voters, Republicans need to figure out a way to improve their performance in an increasingly crucial demographic. They do not need to get a majority, but they do need to get closer to 40 percent.
- We still don't know what the post-Obama electorate will look like. People of color, and especially blacks, came out huge for President Barack Obama. Democrats have been hoping to keep those voters coming to the polls, and voting Democratic, even after he leaves office. Those voters didn't show up in the hoped-for numbers at the midterms, but then, that electorate tends to be older and whiter than in presidential years. And blacks showed up more strongly than expected, which may bode well for Democrats in 2016 -- or it may simply mean that black turnout will stay elevated as long as Obama is on the ticket, directly or by implication.
- It was a wave. I confess I was surprised; I expected good, but not super-exciting, results for Republicans. Ultimately, the party took every Senate race it was expected to, knocked off Kay Hagan and Greg Orman, avoided a runoff in Georgia, and look more likely than not to take Louisiana and Alaska. They took more governor's races than they expected to, including Maryland, which wasn't even supposed to be in contention.
- It's the Economy, Stupid. The commentariat may love the culture war, but voters care about jobs, wages and economic security. Both parties, take note, because this will be the battleground for 2016. Both parties need to come prepared with something better than tax cuts or minimum-wage hikes plus an early-childhood-education expansion that, at best, will pay off in a couple of decades.
- The polls were skewed -- against Republicans. A friend this morning asked how us Beltway types could have missed Kansas and Maryland, plus the squeakers in Virginia. Answer: The polls were wrong. Karl Rove was right, it turns out -- just prematurely anti-skew. And Democrats who argued that they were victims of skewed polls that didn't account for their fantastic get-out-the-vote operation were proven wildly, hopelessly wrong. Why did the polls get it so wrong? My best guess: They were overcompensating for earlier skews against Democrats. This will be an enduring trend in political polling, and is unlikely to permanently favor one party or the other.
- The Democratic ground game is losing ground. Or rather, it's not obviously superior to the Republicans' operation. Was their GOTV machine always less remarkable than it seemed, with Obama's popularity among key demographics driving turnout more than the famed computer wizards? Hard to say. But even if it was, that sort of advantage is hard to maintain; eventually, the other side notices and starts upping its own game.
- We know the name of the what-the-hey-pollsters election, and it is the Maryland governor's race. Plus, this is another set of polling fails in Virginia. If the polls had been more accurate, the Republican Party might have put a little more money into the Virginia Senate race and taken the seat. Is something consistently wrong with Virginia polls, or is this just a couple of surprising coin flips in a row?
- Obamacare still matters. Republicans ran on it and won. Democrats ran away from it. It's hard not to think that Larry Hogan's victory got a big boost from Maryland's absolutely disastrous exchange rollout, which was spearheaded by his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown.
- "Purple" isn't necessarily "pre-blue." Democrats have increasingly been talking as if purple states are inexorably wending toward their destiny as blue states. Colorado and North Carolina show that it's not necessarily a one-way trip.
- The Republican Party can court moderates when they have to. This electorate looked a lot more favorable to Obama than 2010. Republicans nearly ran the table anyway.
- Republicans are doing better with Asians, young people and the middle class compared to 2010. They're even improving, just a bit, with blacks. Take exit-poll data with a grain of salt, of course. Still, it's suggestive that the party improved its performance compared to these groups in both 2010 and 2012. The Asian move in particular is huge, and it could complicate "emerging Democratic majority" stories quite a bit.
- Union bashing works. Scott Walker held on in Wisconsin after a brutal fight with the unions and a recall election. He's obviously a presidential contender now, and public-sector unions are looking less like an impregnable bastion of Democratic campaign support.
- Don't take anything for granted. Last year, when I offered a ham-fisted estimate that the GOP had a high probability of taking both the White House and Senate in 2016, I heard one thing over and over from Democrats: The Republican Party was a rump party confined mostly to the South, unlikely to take as many as 50 seats in the Senate. Oops.
Now, I'm not touting my amazing projection ability; my method was, as I said, quite ham-fisted, consisting mostly of extrapolating, from a very small sample, a tendency for the American public to tire of presidents and throw their party out of office. That method could be completely wrong and still, quite by accident, produce a correct result in this election. Even if the Republicans hold the White House and the Senate in 2016, I still won't have been "proven right."
However, I think it does illustrate the dangers of overextrapolation from recent events. And also of projecting your own opinions on the electorate as a whole. Democrats are indeed quite unable to imagine anyone young or female or Latino or gay voting for those alter kockers in the Republican Party. But always remember that this could be your failure of imagination, rather than a fact about the future.
Republicans would be well to remember this, too. I happen to think that they have a good shot at keeping the Senate and taking the White House in 2016. I also happen to think that they will lose their shot if they start thinking they're a lock.
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