Almost everything you read about what the 2014 midterm elections results “mean” will be wrong.
The results are being over-interpreted
This was always going to be true. It has been the case for every election in recent memory, with pundits careening from pronouncements of permanent Democratic supermajorities, to the the triumphant ascendancy of the Tea Party and back again. Not coincidentally, Presidential election years are typically oversold in terms of Democratic ideas’ strength, while mid-term elections are oversold in terms of support for Republicans.
Regardless of the specific details of the election, the fundamental composition of the electorate was always going to make for a bloodbath for the Democrats. Midterm election demographics favor Republicans. Midterm elections almost always significantly “punish” the party that holds the White House. The Senate seats that happened to be up this year were the most heavily-GOP favoring since WWII.
the Democrats under-performed relative to the polls (but not as badly as people will claim)
They did so by about 4 points. Which sounds like a huge percentage given the relatively tight races, but keep in mind the median “skew” for midterm elections is 3 points. Democrats were hoping for the polls to be wrong, and they were, just not in the way that they hoped. The Republicans did well, but not nearly to the degree that the talking heads will assert over the next few months.
People are soured on government generally, but aren’t embracing conservative policies.
When it comes to generalities- i.e. how is Obama doing, how is the country doing, how is government doing- this election could be seen as a triumph for conservatism. But when you actually look at the support for policy specifics, Democratic positions do about as well or even better than expected.
On immigration, abortion, marijuana legalization, gay marriage, etc. the ostensible refutation of Democratic policies is nowhere to be found. On climate change, a sizable majority say it’s a serious problem:
The exit polls show just over half of voters think the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, a Republican mantra. About two-thirds feel the nation is seriously off on the wrong track — slightly more than thought that when Republicans won control of the House in 2010.
But on some issues, most voters took positions that align more with the Democratic Party.
A majority favor offering immigrants who are in the country illegally a way to stay. A little more than half think abortion ought to be legal in most cases, and most of the voters consider climate change a serious problem.
Nearly two-thirds think the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, a common theme among Democratic candidates.
Health care complaints came from both sides. People who said health care is their top issue were about as likely to say Obama’s overhaul didn’t go far enough as to say it went too far. Overall, those people tended to vote Democratic.
People who said either immigration or foreign policy was their top issue tended to vote Republican.
That healthy majority might be surprising given the composition of midterms voters and the unabated partisan divide on the issue:
Obama will almost assuredly approve Keystone XL
I think Obama was always going to approve the controversial pipeline. The question was how he was going to do it while selling it as something other than a big “fuck you” to the Democratic base. Like privatizing education, blaming minorities for the consequences of decades of institutionalized racism, and confusing airstrikes with some sort of imagined “toughness”, there is a strong anti-hippie streak among the Very Serious People who inhabit Washington, DC, and this includes a lot of people in Obama’s orbit (and perhaps Obama himself). The 2014 election will probably give him the political cover he needs, especially with the deluge of pro-Keystone op-eds that will inevitably follow last nights results.
The wrong lessons will be learned
More than anything else, this election was about the economy. Not the top-line GDP figures, but how voters perceived their own economic situation. The US thankfully passed some measure of stimulus rather than following much of Europe into economically-ignorant austerity, but it was too small. While the Obama administration has revised history to say that no one could have known it was too small at the time, in fact there were knowledgeable experts who made their concerns clear as events were unfolding. We have an economy in recovery, but it’s happening achingly slowly. Moreover, the gains are being concentrated among the wealthiest, while the middle and lower classes still feel left out in the cold. And they voted accordingly.
At a time when more stimulus is needed, we will see calls for more austerity. At a time when the only national action on climate is happening through federal agencies, we will see those efforts undermined and those agencies strangled. At a time when income inequality is rampant, we will see calls for tax cuts for the wealthiest and deregulation of the financial institutions that caused the economic crisis in the first place. At a time of strong Latino support for a comprehensive path to legal immigration, we will see calls for token “reforms” at best.
People will blame Obama for things that happened under Bush, and will credit the new Republican Congress for the continuation of positive trends initiated by Obama.
Climate action will happen between the US and China, if it happens at all
For quite a while, the Obama administration has been seeking to achieve bilateral agreements on climate issues with China, side-stepping the UNFCCC process and domestic legislation in the US. This election won’t change that. US pundits have been quick to say that climate will be the big loser in this election, but there was never any real chance of comprehensive climate legislation being passed by the next Congress, even in the unlikely event that the Democrats had maintained their majority. What progress will be made- if any- towards emissions stabilization will take place through direct negotiations between the Obama administration and the big emitters in the developing world like China.