November 4th has come and gone and like with any natural disaster the time for picking up the pieces begins with the light of day, at least for the Democrats. The Republicans, on the other hand, will likely be hung over from their victory parties for a few days to come. Regardless, the questions are what happened, why, and what does it mean for the country for the next two years?
What Happened: The Electorate
Simply put, it was a bloodbath for the donkey party. The elephants drowned the donkeys in a sea of red in virtually every winnable race. From the House to the Senate to gubernatorial races there wasn't much good news for the donkeys up and down the map. Of course, there was nothing really surprising about that because the party controlling the presidency has lost seats in 18 of the last 21 midterm elections. There are a variety of reasons for that but James Campbell's explanation seems to be the most accurate. Campbell attributes the midterm loss phenomena to the fact that there are two electorates in the United States, one that shows up for presidential elections and one that shows up for midterm elections. Some voters are in both of these electorates but the electorate for a midterm differs demographically from that of the presidential election in a couple of significant ways.
First, the electorate during a midterm election tends to be older than that of a presidential election. According to the exit polls, 22% of the electorate was 65 years or older. In 2012 that number was 16%. Those over age 65 currently tend to vote Republican (56% in 2012, 57% in 2014). Voters between 18 and 29 years of age made up only 13% of the electorate in 2014. Two years earlier they comprised 19% of the electorate. In 2012 younger voters split 60-37 for the Democrats while in 2014 they split 54-43 for the Democrats. The six percentage point increase in senior voters was enough to seal the fate of Democrats in many close races.
Second, the electorate in 2014 was whiter than in 2012. In 2012 whites made up 72% of the electorate and 59% of those voted Republican. In 2014, whites comprised 75% of the electorate and Republicans carried 60% of that vote. African-Americans were 13% of the electorate in 2012 and slipped to 12% in 2014. They voted 93% to 6% Democrat in 2012 but 89% to 10% Democrat in 2014. Latinos consisted of 10% of the electorate in 2012 and supported Democrats by a 71-29 margin while in 2014 they were 8% of the electorate and voted 63-35 for the Democrats.
In sum, if the electorate in 2012 had looked like the electorate in 2014 we would be looking at a unified Republican government under President Mitt Romney today. But it didn't and it most likely won't in 2016 either. By 2016 most analysts expect the electorate to be about 70% white. Barring major changes in the way African-Americans and Latinos vote, that means the Republican nominee will need to carry about 62% of the white vote to win the presidency. That hasn't happened since Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984.
What Happened: Geography
Geographically speaking, the electoral map favored the elephants heading into the 2014 midterm election so it really is no surprise that Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House. The donkeys were defending Senate seats in at least 7 states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 including three in the south. Republicans won two of the three outright on November 4th and will likely win the runoff in Louisiana in December, which means the 114th Congress will not have a single Democrat in the Senate from the old confederacy except for purple Virginia and purple Florida. The transition of the south from solid (conservative) Democrat to solid (conservative) Republican is officially complete. In the Old Dominion (VA) the incumbent Democrat is clinging to a 12,000 vote lead with 95% of the vote counted so a flip in that state is still possible.
Outside of the south, Republicans picked up two seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (Iowa and Colorado) in races that turned out not to be as close as the poll watchers predicted. Alaska has yet to be decided but the elephant appears to have an insurmountable lead over the donkey there. When all is said and done it looks like Republicans will control 54 Senate seats to 44 for the Democrats plus two independents who caucus with the donkeys.
On the House side of things, Republicans stand at 242 seats, which puts them just a few shy of their postwar high water mark with 19 races left to decide. It is entirely possible that Republicans will get to 250 seats.
What it Means
Sadly, not much. Sure, Republicans now control the Senate and its committees. That means legislation emanating from that body will reflect Republican priorities (hasta la vista Big Bird!). In all seriousness, however, it takes 60 votes to get anything of substance through the Senate, which means either the GOP will need to learn how to compromise or it will look exactly as useless as Harry Reid's Democrats have for the past two years. In addition, President Obama still wields the veto stamp so any significant changes to the Affordable Care Act are likely a pipe dream for the GOP.
Other issues, such as immigration reform, tax reform, and entitlement reform may have a small chance of seeing some action but that may well depend on the whether or not the House is ready to govern. The larger Republican majority there may mean Speaker Boehner will have an easier time working out deals with the Senate and bringing them to the floor sure of 218 Republican votes. He did not have the luxury in the last Congress, which allowed the Tea Party to control him on the big issues and why a bipartisan immigration reform bill cleared the Senate with 70 votes died in the House.
The GOP Senate will also be able to force the president to select nominees for judicial vacancies that are moderates if he hopes to get them confirmed. Ultimately, what happens is anyone's guess. Parties typically talk a good game right after a midterm election but as we have seen for the last four years, talk is cheap. Republicans now have a chance to show the country they are prepared to govern and work with a president they despise. Failure to do so may well lead to a very short Senate majority come 2016.