Mastering the Midterms

The questions that need answering on Election Day. 

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Voters lined up to cast their vote at the Boston Public Library on Nov. 6, 2012 in Boston.

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Finally, we’re going to get some results on Election Day 2014. Here are the signposts and early returns that I’m looking for and the questions I want to see answered. (Email me at slatepolitics@gmail.com and let me know what questions interest you and if I have any answers I will let you know on Slate’s Election Live Blog on Tuesday.):

What kind of Senate tide? It will be a good night for Republicans, but how good a night? That matters because the start of a new political age emerges out of the old. Republicans will have an easier time arguing the American people support their policies if they have a big win. Future GOP presidential and Senate candidates will define themselves either as keepers of the spirit that won the day or, if it’s a tepid night for Republicans, they’ll run as the antidote to whatever weakness they claim led to a lackluster result. So, will Republicans win by just doing well in the states where Republicans dominate (states like Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota) or will they be able to claim their ideas worked in states that have a broader mix of voters like Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, and New Hampshire? Members of the GOP establishment are already making the case that co-opting and minimizing the Tea Party during the GOP primary season was a key lesson of this cycle. Will the final picture support that theory? Or, will a loss by Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas give grassroots conservatives the proof they need to claim that if a real conservative had won the party primary, the solidly Republican seat would never have been in jeopardy. (Of course if Roberts loses, then the big question will be if independent candidate Greg Orman’s victory determines the balance of the Senate and if so, which party will he join.)

If the GOP wins in purple states, how did they win? Victories in any of the states President Obama won in 2012 will mean that Republicans have made improvements to their turn-out-the-vote operation, shrinking or overtaking the Democratic advantage. But what other lessons can they take from these victories and duplicate in 2016? Did they find new inroads to younger voters or minorities? Did GOP Senate nominee Cory Gardner in Colorado find a new way to talk to female voters or a way to blunt Democratic attacks? Or maybe he discovered ways to do both. Did Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst ride a wave of anger with Obamacare—30 percent of her supporters say repealing the law was their No. 1 reason for voting for her—or did she find a new way to talk to Midwestern voters? As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report points out, the Obama coalition is flaming out in these battleground states. In Iowa, Obama’s job approval rating among women has taken a 23-point swing from a net positive of 14 points (54/40) to a net negative of 13 points (40/53). If Republicans only won because Democrats were dispirited, that will be hard to duplicate in the 2016 Senate races where Republicans will be protecting seats in nine states that Obama won. 

What’s the message from governors? Thirty-six states will elect governors on Tuesday. There are some race-specific questions that are fascinating: In Florida, will Charlie Crist’s party switches matter? In Massachusetts, has Democrat Martha Coakley doomed herself again the way she did against Scott Brown in the 2010 Senate race? Just how badly will Democrat Wendy Davis lose in Texas? In Maine, if the Democrat candidate Mike Michaud wins, it will mean the state will almost certainly sign up immediately for Medicaid expansion.

But from a thematic perspective I’m most interested in how Republican governors fare because they have so many party stars on the line. Nine incumbent Republican governors are running in states that President Obama won last time. (Those states include Maine, Iowa, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Ohio.) The outcomes of these races will offer an even greater hint about what kinds of policies might appeal to Democratic voters as Republicans take lessons for their presidential candidates. In the outcome of races like Gov. Sam Brownback’s in Kansas, we’ll also see how constituents react to conservative principles when they are put in practice.

What’s the Scott Walker verdict? We’ll get another piece of data to test the Walker Hypothesis. After Scott Walker became the first governor to defeat a recall attempt, he argued that he had found a way to appeal to Obama voters by governing as a conservative. He said that almost 10 percent of the electorate voted to re-elect President Obama and keep him in office, too. In the Wall Street Journal, he argued he was a model for the Republican Party—someone who could govern as a conservative and still win in a purple state. The midterm electorate is much different than in a presidential year, but will there be anything in the exit polls that give him ammunition to make the same claim? Of course, the first test will be whether he is re-elected. 

Whose ideas won in the states? When I sat down to lunch with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist a few months ago, he handed me a map of the country that didn’t have anything to do with the battle for control of the Senate. Norquist was focused on something else: the number of Americans living under Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures. That’s because as Washington dithers, the local offices are where policies are enacted that affect people’s lives. In 2010, Republicans had a great year, winning 700 legislative seats and picked up 20 legislatures. Those gains were solidified in the redistricting process that followed, so that even in 2012—a bad year for Republicans—they picked up five more legislative chambers at the state level. Republicans control 59 of the 98 partisan chambers in 49 states. (Nebraska is officially nonpartisan). Democrats control only 39. The sea of red shows up on this map. Will that number go up or down? The Republican State Leadership Committee has predicted that it will increase the number of legislatures under Republican control by six. Norquist is watching West Virginia where he thinks the House of Delegates is likely to shift to Republican control and the Senate might start moving that way and ultimately flip in 2016. Arkansas will likely get a Republican governor, making that state government entirely Republican-controlled. Norquist thinks the New Hampshire House will flip and is watching Illinois and Connecticut where Democrats may lose control of the Senate. My colleague Betsy Woodruff has written about this march and also notes that we should watch for a possible shift in the Iowa Senate and even a flip to the Republicans in the Kentucky House. 

Who won the turnout battle? Did the $60 million Democratic effort pay off? Were Democrats able to find new voters and recreate the Obama coalition of younger voters, blacks, and Latinos in a non-presidential election year? Six of the 16 states with the largest black population are voting for senators on Tuesday. In the early vote count, it already looks like Democrats have gotten black voters to vote in Louisiana and North Carolina in greater numbers than in the last midterm election. In Louisiana, Democrats say they have registered more black voters than in 2012. How many will turn out? Was the Democratic turnout effort better in states like Iowa and Colorado where Democrats had an organization honed from repeated presidential fights, than it was in Arkansas and Georgia, which are not traditional battleground states? In polls leading up to Election Day, there has been a split between the way registered voters feel about the election and the way likely voters feel. The latter has been a more Republican-leaning group. On Tuesday we’ll find out if the models that anticipated the shape of the electorate were right.

How do women voters factor into 2014? The first state I’ll watch is Colorado where Democrats have run heavily on the issues of abortion rights and access to contraception. (Even ads hitting the Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner on his environmental record began with a picture of a medicine cabinet and mentioned contraception.) It was one of the states that Planned Parenthood targeted, along with Iowa, North Carolina, and Alaska. Sen. Mark Udall won women voters by 15 points in 2008. President Obama won them by 3 points in 2012 and 15 points in 2008. Sen. Michael Bennet, whose focus of female voters set the model for the current race, won women voters by 18 points. What will the number be this time?  

How toxic was President ObamaAccording to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans who “strongly disapprove” of the president is higher than it was in 2010 when Republicans picked up 64 House seats, six governorships, and six Senate seats. The Pew poll last week showed that 62 percent of Republicans were going to cast their vote as a vote against Obama. So what is the final number? How much did Republicans really dislike the president and how much did that matter to their vote? This is also a question about political gravity. So far, Democratic candidates have been able to stay close in the polls to their opponents in Republican states, even though Obama’s approval rating is lower in those states than his national average. If they can survive, they will buck the recent trend of states voting for senators from the same party of the presidential candidate they supported.

Do voters just stay home? What if the undecided voters who don’t like the president also don’t like the Republican alternative? The president’s approval rating is low, but in the latest CBS poll, the GOP-controlled Congress’s approval rating is 21 percent. If turnout is low, could it be because voters weren’t given anything to like about the Republicans in a GOP campaign that was entirely about President Obama? Disapproving of President Obama isn’t much of a motivator if people don’t think the Republicans can do a better job. That leads to another question about the makup of the electorate. The 2010 midterm elections were the first election cycle in which more people identified as conservatives than moderates. Will that remain true? If the number of moderates is down, then we’ll know just how much of a base election this was. 

How did the business candidates do? Voters say they want business experience in their politicians. In a recent Gallup poll, 81 percent responded that the country would be better governed if more people with business and management experience were elected. But in practice it’s not always a boon for candidates. That may be because achieving success in business often puts you in contact with politically unpopular practices like outsourcing and offshoring. That has affected candidates in both parties. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker attacked his Democratic rival Mary Burke for outsourcing. In the Georgia Senate race, Michelle Nunn bludgeoned her Republican opponent David Purdue for the same thing. In the close Connecticut governor’s race, Democratic incumbent Dan Malloy has attacked his opponent Tom Foley’s business record. In a CBS poll in May, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 10 points when asked which party cared about people like you and which party was more likely to help Americans get a fair chance to get ahead. How will these attacks on candidates with business experience play out? Will Nunn have a wider margin over Perdue among voters who care about the economy? Will the attacks against Burke limit her appeal to voters in Wisconsin who already are inclined to think that Gov. Walker doesn’t share their concerns? 

Which poll was right in Iowa? The campaign circus these days invariably includes a debate over polling methodology. As if to ensure that debate remains robust, two polls came out on election eve showing very different results in Iowa. The highly respected Des Moines Register poll showed Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst up by 7 points against Democrat Bruce Braley. In the Quinnipiac poll, the race was dead even. You can imagine which party said which poll was skewed. On Election Day, one of them will probably be proven wrong—unless of course the result is within the margin of error of both polls.

Even Election Day can’t settle every question.