2014 Election Guide: Cramming for midterms

So far, it doesn't look like a watershed year

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Three months out from the midterm elections, it looks like the theme of the year might be a negative one: Voters disapprove of Congress by record levels, but seem inclined to keep the rascals in.

Unless a political tornado touches down, it does not look like 2014 will be a watershed or what is called a “wave election.” There is not a single driving issue like Obamacare was in 2010. The economic picture is schizoid, the national mood sour and the array of thorny global issues confusing.

There is an almost universal consensus among professional election watchers that the Republicans will hold on to the House and have a good to very good chance to capture the Senate, albeit by a slim margin.

A change of control of the Senate is a big deal, but given the standoff the White House and Congress are already in, it might not mean big changes in President Barack Obama’s last two years.

Political climate

The macro factors in midterm elections are usually economic conditions, national mood and presidential popularity. Huffpost Pollster aggregates public polls, creating handy updated averages. Here is the trend for whether Americans think the country is on the right track or wrong track.

Not a happy picture and trending towards gloomy. The outlook doesn’t change with questions about general satisfaction and how things are going in the country:

More bad news. Those results are unsurprisingly parallel to Obama’s lousy approval ratings.

All this would tend to be very good for the out-of-office party, the GOP.

On the other hand, unemployment is falling and the stock market is rising. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Obama is not getting much credit for that. The Pew Research Center chart below was included in an analysis by The Cook Political Report, a superb election monitor (subscription only, sorry).


Chart credit: Jocelyn Kiley, Pew Research


It charts the historical relation of the unemployment rate to the presidential approval rating.  The presidents'  approval ratings rose as unemployment fell for both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as you would expect.  But that was not true of the other recent two-term presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Right now, the economy is so-so. More important for political purposes, according to Amy Walter of the Cook Report, “If you’re a Democrat, you think the economy is getting better. If you are a Republican, you don’t.” 

Obama’s popularity also has to be seen in the context of his rivals. And Congress is downright despised. Here is a chart of congressional approval ratings, again from Huffpost Pollster: 

The overall picture is a bit of a muddle. Turnout is usually low in midterms. Those who vote are the more politically active and more partisan, less changeable and more hardened. It looks like a grudging status quo election, with a high “hold your nose” factor.


When you plug all these variables into a prediction machine, the pros say we should expect the Republicans to pick up a modest number of House seats.  And that is exactly what history would have us expect, as the chart below shows from the midterm election in a president's second term.

Source: The Cook Report


Of post-war, two-term presidents, only Bill Clinton managed to avoid the six-year itch. It was a moment of rare peace and prosperity.

The prognosticators at The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog summarize,

“We estimate that the Democrats have less than a 1 percent chance of taking the House. Our model currently estimates that the Democrats will win 193 seats, down slightly from the 201 they controlled after the 2012 election and the 199 they currently control, given existing vacancies.” 

Given the favorable macro factors, why aren’t the Republicans poised to do better? One hint comes from the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey. Only 19 percent had a favorable view of Republicans in Congress; 54 percent have a negative view. That makes Obama look like Santa Claus.

As for the Democrats in Congress, 31 percent had a positive view, 46 percent negative, according to an NBC/Wall St Journal survey.


The future make-up of the Senate is less dependent on 30,000-foot trends and more on the quirks of this year’s specific states. Right now there are 45 Republicans, 53 Democrats and two mavericks who vote with the Dems.

Democrats are defending more seats this year, 21 compared to 15. While only one Republican is retiring, five veteran Democrats are leaving the Senate: Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Max Baucus of Montana (he’s already gone). All of those will be close races.

Overall, Republicans still have more advantages going into the fall, especially when it comes to the Senate race map, national environment, and President Obama’s unpopularity,” according to Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report.  “All these factors mean that Republicans will certainly gain seats. It is not yet clear that they will gain the six seats they need for a majority.”

Here is how The Cook Report breaks down the races:



If everything goes as predicted in the red and blue columns, the Republicans would need to pick a net of only three seats in the gray Toss Up column to gain control of the Senate. The roughest might be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s battle against Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 35 year-old Kentucky Secretary of State. That's one of the races you are going to want to keep an eye on. 

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