By Julia Azari
Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction
Over the past twenty years, midterm elections have become nationalized. In 1994 and 2010, Republicans across the country ran under national platforms, promising to change politics and to reverse the agendas of the Democratic president – first Clinton, then Obama – in the White House. This phenomenon hasn’t been limited to a single party. In 2006, the midterm elections were cast as a referendum on the Bush administration and the Iraq war; similarly, in 1998, the Clinton impeachment emerged as a major theme. The 2010 midterms were notable not only for the Tea Party movement that unified the messages for Congressional candidates across the country, but also for the Republican governors who came to power under the same wave. Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, John Snyder of Michigan, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin all seemed to interpret their party’s strength in the election as a mandate for to move policy sharply to the right in their respective states.
Not all races carry the same symbolic weight. Eric Cantor’s primary loss earlier this year was significant not because of the margin, but because of its defiance of expectations and because of Cantor’s status in the party. Similarly, Grimes’ race against McConnell has attracted national interest, and will have national implications, because of McConnell’s role as Senate Minority Leader. But here the (likely unsuccessful) Grimes campaign faces a dilemma that’s difficult to resolve. An established tactic for attacking incumbents is to point out how they have become Washington insiders, and lost touch with their districts and constituents. At the same time, the energy for fundraising and attracting headliners like Bill Clinton comes not from concern about the representation of Kentucky (or where ever) in Congress, but from the national significance of the race.
Is 2014 an exception to the nationalization trend? Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt suggest that party polarization has turned this years’ contests into a “Seinfeld election” – an campaign about nothing. Jobs, national security, and healthcare are on voters’ minds, but no central issue stands out. Furthermore, voters have already had the opportunity to vote on some of the most polarizing issues and figures. The 2010 midterms delivered Obama his famous “shellacking.” The recall election against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker allowed national donors, along with Wisconsin voters, to weigh with their displeasure about his controversial policies – even if those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Has the narrative of elections as major referenda on policy become stale and lost its power?
At least some signs suggest that national politics remain crucial in the upcoming contests. Both Obamas, along with Bill Clinton, have spent time in Wisconsin, campaigning for Walker’s opponent, Mary Burke. This signals that the Democrats consider the race symbolically important for the national party, on top of Wisconsin’s strategic significance in national elections. Wisconsin isn’t the only place attracting national figures; Mitt Romney has also been traveling in support of Republican Senate candidates like David Perdue in Georgia, and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Mitch McConnell’s reelection contest has also attracted national attention and high-level visits, with Romney visiting the state for McConnell and both Clintons campaign on behalf of challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
However, the national emphasis is uneven across different races. According to a Brookings Institution report, the major issues in Iowa “have been the Affordable Care Act, the economy, and abortion.” In contrast, a report in the same series identifies the major issues in Kansas, where a Republican Senator and a Republican governor are both fighting off challenges, as highly specific to the candidates themselves as opposed to national issues.
In 2014, party differences also exist. Republican candidates’ websites feature national policy questions, while Democratic candidates stress their local ties. Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign website boasts her plan for “jobs for Georgians,” while her opponent, David Perdue’s site emphasizes the national debt. Does this difference generalize to other campaigns? Using campaign websites as a measure of message, the evidence suggests that it might. In the Colorado Senate race, Republican challenger Cory Gardner prominently displays his Colorado ties, but also emphasizes national energy and economic issues. Democratic incumbent Udall’s issues page, by contrast, talks about businesses and jobs in Colorado. Each of Udall’s talking points on the main issue page refers specifically to outcomes in the state, not the nation.
The obvious question here is whether any apparent differences between Democrats and Republicans stem from the fact that the incumbent president is a Democrat, or whether they reflect a deeper difference. With an incumbent president in his sixth year, it makes sense for Republicans to bring up national problems, and to encourage voters to treat the midterms as a referendum on Obama’s performance. In the same vein, Democratic candidates have incentives to distance themselves from Obama and the baggage of a sixth-year administration. Nevertheless, the evidence that Republicans are more ideological might also account for this difference – that regardless of circumstances, Republican Congressional candidates might be more likely to frame their campaigns around the national party’s major ideas and values.
Nationalization also has several dimensions. The usual definition, as applied to midterm elections, is that individual races focus on national issues, and, as a result, have some uniformity in tone, focus, and theme across the country. But another aspect of nationalization is that state (and lower) level races take on national significance.
The nationalization question for 2014 remains unclear, and calls into question what we mean when we talk about nationalized party politics. What kinds of national implications can be drawn from a low-engagement election after four years of divided government? (See Morris Fiorina’s work on parties and collective responsibility for deeper thinking about this). Yet, the nationalization of the political system, facilitated by party sorting, technology, and our system of campaign finance, seems like a trend that won’t be so easy to reverse. In the likely event of big Republican victories on Tuesday, it’s easier to imagine a narrative about the Obama presidency than about the inspiring campaigns of Joni Ernst or Thom Tillis.
The full implications of these developments remain to be seen. The Constitution sets up a very localized system of representation in Congress, and it’s uncertain how that fits with nationalized party politics. The nature of representation in the United States has changed and remains in flux. Regarding the politics of the 2014 elections, let’s return to the “Seinfeld” question. What happens when elections are understood to have national significance, but their national policy importance remains unclear? If the parties and candidates lack the ability or the inclination to try to shape the story of the elections, who will step in to interpret the results after the votes are counted?
Julia Azari is an assistant professor at Marquette University. She is the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.