Midterm elections, or as Stephen Colbert calls them “the most tedious fall chore of all”, are a strange affair. Nationwide votes without national candidates (much like parliamentary elections) where the president’s performance is on the minds of voters even when he’s not on the ballot. Turnout drops but the consequences can be considerable and the outcomes memorable: 1994 brought us Newt Gingrich and welfare reform; 2006 was the beginning of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid; 2010 was the Tea Party and Obama’s ”shellacking”.
But the forthcoming midterms seem stranger than most even when they should, theoretically, be as interesting as any. There is something at stake – a real chance the Republicans, who already have the House, could win the Senate. The key races are scattered across the country, from Alaska to North Carolina, and are close and volatile. At the time of writing there are 10 states in play, in seven of which the two parties are essentially tied.
But precious few are interested. According to the Pew Research Center, in the first week of October fewer people followed stories about the midterms than they did stories about the bombing of Isis, the secret service scandal at the White House or the Ebola outbreak. Four years ago, when Pew conducted an identical poll at the same point in the cycle, twice as many were following the elections. A poll in 2006 revealed that 70% were talking politics with their family and friends, 43% were talking politics at work, and 28% were talking about it at church.
The percentage of 18-to-29-year-olds who say they will definitely vote in November is 23% – the lowest recorded number since the Harvard Institute of Politics started the survey 10 years ago. “Midterm elections rarely excite the general public,” wrote the Pew Research Center recently under the headline “For many Americans a ‘meh’ midterm”. “But 2014 is shaping up to be an especially underwhelming cycle for many Americans.”
The media is switching off. Nate Silver, the influential statistician whose idea of a good night in is a refined model and a fresh slew of polls, has been bored with this election since last summer. “I think 2014 midterm will be dull as compared to other most recent elections,” he said then. USA Today recently ran a headline: “Who’ll win midterm elections? Who cares?”.
Even the politicians don’t seem that interested. Last week Bill Cassidy, the Republican challenger for the Senate in Louisiana, who is in a close race with the Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu, did not show up for a debate. No debates have been scheduled for Senate races in Michigan (which some thought would be close), and Ohio will not have a debate in its gubernatorial contest for the first time in 36 years. And when politicians are debating, they are doing so less often.
There are some plausible reasons for this. First, there are several dramatic stories vying for the public’s attention. When Isis is distributing videos of Americans being beheaded, cases of Ebola are springing up and allegedly armed intruders are making it into the White House then, arguably, disputes over the farm bill in Arkansas or coal in Kentucky do not grab the voters’ attention in quite the same way.
Also Republicans, in particular, did a thorough job during the primaries of promoting establishment candidates and weeding out the kind of character who sparked the wrong kind of interest: Todd Akin, the 2012 Missouri candidate who claimed women could not get pregnant from a “legitimate rape”; Christine O’Donnell, the 2010 Delaware senatorial candidate who opposed masturbation and who ran a campaign ad that began with the declaration “I am not a witch”; or Sharron Angle, the 2010 Nevada senatorial candidate who walked into a room full of Latinos and said “Some of you look a little more Asian to me.” These candidates were disasters for Republicans: they lost winnable seats that could have delivered their party the Senate four years ago. But their gaffes fired up Democrats, entertained the ambivalent and fed the cable channels with a steady diet of political junk food.
There is no dominant narrative in this election on which to hook voter disillusionment. In 2010 the economy was still tanking and those who thought “Hope” and “Change” could be delivered like a pizza were devastated. In 2006 there was the Iraq war. This time around the moment is more mixed. The economy is improving, even if the jobs are low-paying and insufficient; Obamacare has been introduced without death panels. Some may not be fond of it philosophically but many have benefited and few want to repeal it. “Just one month before the election,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “it isn’t even clear what the midterm contests are about. No single issues dominate except unhappiness with the established order.”
The Republicans have tried to tie together the various national and global crises – immigration, Isis, Ebola, the White House security scandal – into one huge ball of national anxiety. Currently more than half of the country believes the risk of another terrorist attack in America is either extremely high or just high while 40% say they have either not much confidence or “no confidence at all” that the government can forestall a major Ebola outbreak in the US. Republicans have been running ads warning that jihadist rebels from Iraq and Syria could be streaming over the Mexican border; right-wing radio hosts have even been claiming that Ebola is being deliberately allowed into America by Obama as a punishment for slavery. “That lack of confidence in the government,” wrote the New York Times recently, “is a sentiment Republicans are trying to tether to Mr Obama and the Democratic Party”. It’s not yet clear the extent to which this line of attack is working.
While Obama has dismal approval ratings, he has not yet plumbed the depths George W Bush had reached at this stage in his presidency. And even if he had, Congress – the very body these campaigns are for – is even more unpopular.
Finally, most of the contested Senate seats are in states where Democrats would struggle at the best of times. Of the 10 states that will most likely decide the outcome, eight (Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alaska, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Georgia) voted for Mitt Romney – three by more than 20 points and two by more than 15. So the Democrats running in these states are more conservative than usual. They are more likely to be pro-gun, more equivocal on Obamacare and less strident on government spending. Last week Democrat Alison Grimes, who is running against the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky, was asked four times by the Louisville Courier-Journal whether she voted for Obama and refused to answer. During their debate earlier this week she still wouldn’t say.
So the villains are not as villainous, the issues are less stark, the narrative less obvious, the buffoons have been reined in, the candidates are less polarising and the races less contentious than in previous midterms. These are not necessarily all bad things. And yet a mature democracy should not necessarily require these things to make an election interesting.
On St Louis Grand Boulevard in the Shaw district of St Louis on Thursday night around 300 protesters faced off against a line of riot police around midnight. This was the area in which Vonderitt Myers was shot two days earlier by an off-duty police officer in circumstances as yet unclear. He was the third teenager to be shot by law enforcement in the area since Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, was killed in the suburb of Ferguson on 9 August. For most of the evening the demonstrations had been like a controlled explosion with the police allowing protesters to take over the streets, stopping traffic and chanting, within an area while they blocked the perimeters. As soon as those perimeters were breached they waded through the crowds brandishing Mace and wielding batons.
St Louis feels like it is about to blow – a major city on the brink. And the issue on which it is riven – police shootings – is by no means local. The furore around Brown’s killing was a national matter sending TV anchors and the attorney general, Eric Holder, to this previously unknown suburb. Yet neither the incident nor the issues it raises have made it on to the national agenda during election season. Since the last time America went to the polls events have taken place that seemed to rock the nation: the shooting of 20 small children and eight adults in Newtown, Connecticut; George Zimmerman’s acquittal over the shooting of Trayvon Martin; the overturning of many anti-gay laws; Ferguson. But none are being seriously discussed.
True, most of these things did not happen in states that are being heavily contested this time around. But then the 9/11 terror attacks didn’t happen in a contested state either and the ramifications from that dominated the political landscape for several years to come, including the 2002 midterms.
Worse still, the politicians are not just not talking about them; they are actively avoiding them. “I think Democrats are reluctant to touch issues like racial profiling and police shootings because they’re confident that they’ve got the black vote and they are reluctant to rile up the conservative base,” explains Pamela Merritt, a St Louis-based blogger and activist who lives within earshot of the most recent shooting, referring to the unrest there. “The polarised reactions to Mike Brown’s death fuel a political reaction that makes addressing the root of the problem challenging to say the least.”
In 2004 Republicans used gay marriage as the key wedge issue to bring evangelical voters to the polls. It’s difficult to imagine that this is no longer an issue for their base. But it’s clearly ceased to be an issue that the party thinks it can win on and so has not been appearing in its candidates’ ads. The Fox News analyst and former presidential contender Mike Huckabee recently threatened to leave the party if it didn’t renew its anger. “If the Republicans want to lose guys like me – and a whole bunch of still God-fearing, Bible-believing people – go ahead and just abdicate on this issue, and while you’re at it, go ahead and say abortion doesn’t matter, either,” he said. “Because at that point, you lose me,” Huckabee said. “I’m gone. I’ll become an independent. I’ll start finding people that have guts to stand. I’m tired of this.”
Steering clear of hot-button issues may be smart politics but it is dismal for the polity. For it means elections are seen, by both sides, not as a place where important issues might be thrashed out but where they might be avoided. Both parties, for different reasons, appear terrified of their bases, preferring to steer clear of those matters that are dear to their supporters’ hearts. No wonder so few are interested.
These are arguably temporary problems. In time there will be another president, different states in play, more colourful candidates, more thorny issues and more turbulent times. But there are two reasons to believe that this ennui may be of a more permanent nature.
The first is money. The Citizens United ruling effectively injected unlimited amounts into the electoral bloodstream, which rendered the political culture virtually comatose. Money, it is argued, is the main reason why so few debates are happening this year. When you’ve got dollars for ads why bother with a duel of wits?
“Chalk [the declining number of debates] up as one more negative effect of money in politics,” writes the editorial board of USA Today. “In the era of big money, candidates can run for office largely through advertisements, aired either by their campaigns or by sympathetic special interest groups. By flooding the airwaves, they can get away with fewer of the spontaneous events – knocking on doors, greeting people on the street, speaking to neutral or hostile audiences – that used to be a big part of campaigns. They can also get away without debating.”
The second is gerrymandering. In most states the districts for the House of Representatives are carved up by partisan commissions that deliberately create seats that benefit the party that controls the state’s legislature. What emerges is a system that is only truly democratic in so much as everybody gets a chance to vote but where precious few districts are truly competitive. In 2012 the Democrats won more votes nationally in House races and yet still ended up in the minority by more than 30 seats.
But the most damning reason for the lack of interest is that all the talk about who will win has little bearing on what will change – precious little. Obama will still be in the White House; the Republicans will run the House of Representatives; and even if they take the Senate they won’t be able to do much with it because they won’t get a veto-proof majority. So the most likely outcome – indeed the only outcome – is a different flavour of gridlock elected by the party whose base was least bored.