The One Thing This Election Will Decide

Republican victories will prove the president is unpopular. They won’t give Republicans a mandate to govern.

President Obama makes a statement to the press.

President Obama makes a statement to the press in the Oval Office of the White House Oct. 22, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans are going to pick up seats in both houses of Congress. They may even take control of the Senate. Those victories will provide an unequivocal mandate for support of one proposition: widespread dislike of President Obama. That’s it. More than $4 billion will be spent on the 2014 campaign, and when it’s over, that will be the message on the little slip of paper that emerges from that huge machine of activity.

This year’s contest is a no-mandate election, in which the winning side will succeed with no great animating idea other than the fear (or avoidance) of the Obama nightmare. Republican debates, speeches, and advertisements have been so thoroughly concerned with the president and how much the Democrat on the ballot agrees with him, there is no other message that competes. That’s a smart political strategy, but it’s not a governing strategy. Republicans may take control of Congress, but it will have been by clobbering a president they’ll then have to work with at a time when a majority of Americans say they want leaders in Washington to compromise. 

But a majority of Americans are not a majority of the voters who will likely give the winning party their tide-turning victory. According to a recent Pew survey, 61 percent of Republican voters consider their congressional ballot as a vote against the president, up from 56 percent in 2010 when anti-Obamacare fervor caused Democrats to lose 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. Republicans are likely to make the bulk of their gains in the seven states Mitt Romney won in 2012, six of which he won by double digits. In Arkansas—a state Obama lost by 24 points—Republican Senate candidate Tom Cotton said Obama’s name 74 times in his 90-minute debate against Sen. Mark Pryor, prompting the Pryor campaign to make this hypnotic video. As Dan Balz pointed out in the Washington Post, this campaign may be about nothing, but it’s still about Obama

In states like Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, which do not tilt heavily toward the right, Republican victories will nevertheless be spurred by dislike of Obama because that’s what candidates are running on in those states. GOP candidates have mentioned they prefer less regulation, lower taxes, and a reformed version of Obamacare, but simply mentioning a preference isn’t the same as running on a set of ideas. Political communication requires repetition. When you really want to drive home a message, you drill it right into the brainpan. Ads by Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC are an example of the form. In North Carolina, Crossroads is running an ad where a child is asked to spell the name of the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Kay Hagan. “Hagan. O-B-A-M-A,” says the girl. “Close enough,” say the three judges. A similar version of the ad is running in other states. Two other closing-stretch Crossroads ads in North Carolina are also focused entirely on Obama. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has made the same point in the race. It’s like this in all the close races.

A press release sent out one week before Election Day from the National Republican Congressional Committee called “closing argument,” says: “We released our final ads of the cycle today and President Obama is featured in almost all of them. These closing argument ads demonstrate just how toxic Obama has become for House Democrats.”*

The only policy prescription that comes remotely close to matching the anti-Obama mantra is the promise to secure the boarder, which is still pretty vague.

This is the difference between the GOP’s congressional wing and its governors. Among GOP governors, the mantra has been that you must run on ideas in order to build a mandate to implement them. That is the gospel promoted by Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, popular Republicans held up as models of how to turn campaign successes into governing progress for conservative ideas. (That is why those governors were critical of Romney for running an anti-Obama campaign that didn’t emphasize much of a policy vision.) That’s also why GOP governors have been using their Washington counterparts as a foil. They offer themselves as the wing of the Republican Party that gets things done, implicitly (or not so implicitly) distancing themselves from the solution-free part of the party.

In the congressional wing, success comes from being fuzzy on ideas. The 2014 midterms aren’t the first time that a lack of a governing agenda served as part of the Republican playbook for getting elected. In 2010, the GOP won the House with a program that rested on the vaguest mush pulled together as a unified program. Democrats had no unifying message when they ran against Bush in 2006 either, other than his unpopularity.

When you run on no platform and win, it means the mandate is up for grabs. That means there will be some exciting debates among Republicans and conservatives in 2015. If the GOP takes control of the Senate because of red-state victories in states Romney won by double digits, that’s not a recipe for compromise. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 38 percent of Republicans said new members should compromise; only 32 percent of Tea Party voters agreed. (Fifty-one percent of Independents and 68 percent of Democrats wanted compromise.) Do you dance with the conservative electorate that brought you or the more moderate electorate that you’re going to face in 2016? Because, in the next election cycle, Republican senators are up for reelection in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all states that President Obama won. The jockeying for the 2016 GOP nomination will supercharge this debate.

The stakes are high. Republicans will be trying to fashion a unified agenda without the ratifying clarity that can come from an election, while a public with little patience looks on. Voters trust Republicans on a host of issues from national security to the economy, but they also have a low opinion of the party. In the Pew poll, 38 percent say they have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 54 percent express an unfavorable view of the GOP. The public remains divided in its outlook of the Democratic Party: 47 percent have a favorable opinion and 46 percent have an unfavorable view. “If we don’t capture the House stronger, and the Senate, and prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016,” says House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a recent in-depth story in Politico on his efforts to bring the party together after the election. That’s a start, but what shape “proving you can govern” takes is tricky.

Of the two parties, Republicans may be more self-aware of how this election masks unresolved internal issues. Democrats can blame their losses on an unpopular president and voters in states where Republicans dominate. But progressives and union strategists suggest the problem is that Democrats didn’t run on an economic message that could touch middle-class voters. By narrowcasting to women with a focus on abortion rights and contraception, Democrats downplayed a more populist economic message that might have attracted voters with family income hovering around $50,000. 

This isn’t the kind of conversation that will likely break out in the open, however, because if Republicans win, Democrats will be unified. What will their issues be? Republicans are bad.

*Update, Oct. 28, 2014: This piece was updated to include reference to a press release from the National Republican Congressional Committee that indicated that almost all of its final ads in this election cycle featured President Obama. (Return.)