Election 2014: Voters weren’t mad as hell; they were worn out

Election Day 2014 ended up worse than the already-bad predictions for Democrats.

The Republicans took control the Senate, picked up seats in the House, and snagged governorships in Illinois and Maryland. With few exceptions, everything that could go wrong did.

And when things go that wrong on Election Day, the team that loses is supposed to take a week and write postmortems looking at what happened, what’s going to happen, and the electorate was trying to tell us.

But I don’t think I need to write a postmortem, because I don’t think anyone died, apart from a few political careers. 2014 was, for the most part, a boring election that highlights much of what we already knew about our current political state of affairs.

This was not a wave election

One of my bigger pet peeves in politics is that political observers and prognosticators are careless in their use of the term “wave.” As Stu Rothenberg, one of our more prominent political pundits, admitted before the election:

I know of no formal, widely accepted definition of the term “wave.” On the other hand, as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when referring to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Yesterday, Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report planted his flag and declared 2014 a wave. And in a way, Rothenberg was right: Wave elections bear a striking resemblance to pornography in political journalism.

For an outfit that makes its living declaring whether or not an election counts as a wave, the Rothenberg analyses strike me as awfully lazy. More systematic ways to define waves are out there, so if they don’t want to come up with one of their own the least they could do is look. What’s more, informal definitions of “waves” almost always include a clear mandate for the party that wins.

And while you can say that voters endorsed GOP candidates on Tuesday, you can’t say they endorsed their policies. Unlike 2010, GOP candidates were hesitant to rail too heavily against Obamacare, ran away from absolutist positions on reproductive rights, and even came out in favor of minimum wage increases.

What’s more, liberals claimed victory on a host of ballot initiatives, even as their candidates struggled in encouragingly frustrating fashion:

Bored cat, via Shutterstock

Bored cat, via Shutterstock

Throughout the campaign, this election cycle was in many ways an election about nothing. Voters weren’t mad as hell; they were worn out.

Neither party was comfortable going all-in on major issues like Obamacare or the economy or immigration, despite the best efforts of their respective bases. They just defaulted into generic D and R talking points, and let the chips fall where they usually do. The Republicans came closer to a coherent narrative towards the end of the cycle, but even that was, as Jon Stewart said, “Vote for us or get beheaded while pooping blood!” It was scary, but it wasn’t exactly comprehensive. And, in the case of Scott Brown, who said that we wouldn’t be worried about Ebola if Mitt Romney were president, it backfired.

Presidents almost always lose senate seats in their second round of midterms, which makes sense: All of the senators who rode those presidential coattails to victory six years prior now have to defend themselves at the top of the ticket. This year, a disproportionate number of those senators hailed from red states.

In other words, the fact that Republicans will control both chambers of Congress come January says less about them, and more about the GOP’s path to victory comprising six states President Obama lost in 2012 by at least thirteen points: Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, Louisiana (pending runoff), South Dakota and West Virginia.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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