Mark Mellman: What happened?

The first key to understanding Tuesday’s elections is recognizing that it was a midterm cycle. The party controlling the White House typically loses seats in midterms. In recent decades, those losses have averaged 30 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. So far this cycle, Democrats have lost a net of 12 seats in the House (fewer than the average) and eight seats in the Senate (an above-average loss).

So what else happened? 


Presidential approval is also tightly intertwined with the electoral performance of the president’s party. Nationally, just 44 percent approved of President Obama’s performance, according to exit polling. In Senate battlegrounds, that average was a lower 39 percent. 

Not one Democratic Senate candidate outperformed the president’s approval rating in his or her state by more than 9 points, and most exceeded it by only 2 to 5 points. 

Only George W. Bush suffered a lower midterm approval rating, in 2006 — and the GOP lost six Senate and 31 House seats that year. 

One of the most important and underrated changes in our politics is related: the increasing correlation between presidential voting and voting for the House and Senate. All told, Democrats lost at least seven (and possibly nine) Senate seats, five in states the president lost two years ago. On average, where Democratic Senate candidates lost, the president lost by 8 points in 2012 while he was winning the country. 

The map was our worst enemy in 2014; it will be our best friend in 2016. 

These factors are potent: Months ago, models using these fundamentals and a few others predicted the GOP would capture enough Senate seats to control 53 — almost exactly the number they hold today. Nonetheless, these purely structural dynamics somehow feel inadequate to the task of explaining the Democratic rout. 

I believe something deeper was at play.

That we often identify elections with emotions is telling. We’ve had elections about hope and change, about anger and fear. This election was importantly about worry, and that emotion seemed to predominate with voters.

While the economy is improving and voters are noticing — consumer confidence surged to a seven-year high in October — the Great Recession left deep emotional scars.

Thirty-eight percent of voters were not just worried, they were very worried about the future of the economy, and they voted Republican by more than 2-to-1. In some potential swing states, even more were very worried: 48 percent in Iowa and Kansas, and 51 percent in Virginia.

Seventy-one percent were a least somewhat worried about a terrorist attack; they voted Republican by a 20-point margin.  

Nearly half the electorate, 48 percent, worried that life for the next generation will be worse than life today. And they voted Republican by a 40-point margin. 

Worry was pervasive. It’s akin to fear, which, studies tell us, moves people to the right. 

Democrats would argue that we offered solutions, at least to economic anxieties, with policies like minimum wage and equal pay playing prominent roles in almost every Democratic campaign. 

Voters offered strong support for these policy prescriptions. While Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorKyrsten Sinema is less of a political enigma than she is a strategic policymaker  Bottom line Everybody wants Joe Manchin MORE and (presumably) Mark BegichMark Peter BegichHarry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Alaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats MORE were losing their Senate seats in Arkansas and Alaska, two-thirds of those same voters were passing minimum-wage increases. Even ruby-red South Dakota and Nebraska passed minimum-wage hikes.

A future column will explore this disconnect between support for Democrats’ economic agenda and the lack of support for Democratic candidates, but for now, suffice it to say our policy proposals did little to ameliorate voters’ economic anxiety.  

In the end, an election year that was built to be bad for Democrats was made even worse by the deep anxiety hanging over the electorate: worry about the economy, about terrorism and about an epidemic of deadly disease.

In short, the world looked like it was out of control, and — fair or unfair, right or wrong — we expect our president to keep things under control. Fear of entropy made an already bad situation worse.   

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.