How Election 2014 humbled the high priests of American politics

Washington's political class – armed with tons of big data – took a beating in the midterm elections. In several ways, that could be a good thing for American democracy.

David Zalubowski/AP/File
Democrats tried relentlessly to paint the policies of Republican US Senate candidate Cory Gardner (r.) as anti-woman, despite signs that the voters weren't buying it. He defeated incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D).

The big losers in this month’s midterm elections weren’t only Democrats. The permanent political class – bristling with big money and big data – also failed to deliver. And that may be good for democracy.

When a politician loses, it’s personal: Aides get fired, offices change hands, often so do houses, apartments, or condos. But the pollsters, publicists, media gurus, and political handicappers that people the permanent campaign don’t decamp, even if their advice and projections turn out badly.  A candidate that commits a gaffe, especially one that’s weaponized over the Internet, lives with it forever. But memory runs short for the actual record of the political class that advises them – and is wooing (or vetting) clients for the next election while the recounts and runoffs for the last one are still underway.

Well, the political class bet big on big data this fall, and it didn't turn out so hot. Big data – the capacity to collect vast amounts of data on voter preferences – has increasingly directed how candidates raise money, get voters to the polls, and even settle on campaign themes and slogans. The “disciplined candidate” so often sought by political kingmakers embraces big data and rigorously follows its dictates.

But November’s midterm election was full of surprises. Here are five outcomes that signal that big data and big money may be losing clout or, put another way, that American voters may be reclaiming some of their independence from the models that would define them.

Polls missed the mark, again

The failure of big-data polls to accurately predict outcomes is a perennial post-election story. The 2012 campaign cycle underestimated Republican performance. In 1998, the polls vastly underestimated Democratic performance. The reasons polling data didn’t fit results ranged from poor response rates to polls, too many cell phones, robocall fatigue, unrepresentative samples, fake data (rare), etc.

In a post-election blog, Nate Silver of the "FiveThirtyEight" blog finds evidence that “some pollsters are putting a thumb on the scale.” What he means is that by the end of the 2014 campaign season, polls in most states had produced results that too closely resembled each other – an outcome statistically at odds with a basic principle of polling: sampling error.

“If you’ve collected enough polls and don’t find that at least 32 percent of them deviate from the polling average by 3.5 percentage points, it means something funny – like herding – is going on,” he writes.

He suggests the false consensus came from pollsters who wanted to avoid looking like an “outlier” so close to Election Day. That could explain why polls in the Kansas Senate race had estimated that independent Greg Orman would win by one to two percentage points, when in fact, incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts won by 11 percentage points.                  

The spin machine sputtered

One of the fallouts of big-data-driven campaigns is an understanding of a “disciplined” candidate as one who stays “on message.” The Colorado Senate race became Exhibit A for why that strategy, taken to extremes, may be self-defeating. Sen. Mark Udall (D), a senator of wide legislative interests in the Senate, wound up repeating so relentlessly his campaign talking points on how his opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, was a threat to women’s reproductive rights and access to birth control, that the ads became objects of derision.

In effect, the messaging was so transparent that spin fatigue became a negative factor in some campaigns.  

“This scripting of candidates and tendency to discipline them to be on message produces a particularly sterile kind of discourse,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

“This talking point of a Republican ‘war on women’ was a key part of the Democratic message machine in the last two campaign cycles. But its patent ran out in 2014,” he adds. 

The wrath of the gun lobby is no longer fatal

The National Rifle Association notched a signature win in Washington State in 1994, when it targeted US House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Democrat, for defeat, after the House passed an assault-weapons ban and the Brady Bill requiring federal background checks on handgun purchases. So many other pro-gun-control Democrats also lost their races that year that the House flipped back to Republican control for the first time in more than 40 years. Ever since, gun-control legislation has been viewed as political poison on Capitol Hill, even after mass shootings.

But the gun lobby lost its claim to invincibility this year in the same state that once bestowed it. Washington voters they passed a ballot measure to expand background checks for gun sales and defeated a separate measure that would have ended background checks, by votes of 60 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Atlantic Senior Editor David Frum called the vote “a historic rebuke.”

Moreover, the two Colorado legislators who in 2013 won recall elections agaisnt pro-gun-control incumbents – elections seen as a decisive win for the NRA – were defeated in November midterm elections.

Union power isn’t so scary, either

Teachers unions, a key element of any Democratic get-out-the-vote operation, also sustained heavy losses in the midterm election, despite contributing some $60 million to federal, state, and local races. In a Republican wave election, it’s not surprising that unions failed to defeat GOP governors whose curbs on the bargaining rights public sector unions became signature issues, such as Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin.  

But unions also failed to work their will in a high-profile governor’s race in Rhode Island, a big union state. Teachers and the AFL-CIO refused to back Democrat Gina Raimondo, who defied public sector unions by downsizing public worker pensions when she was state treasurer. Ms. Raimondo, a venture capitalist, denied union charges that she was just another Scott Walker. If teachers could retire at the age of 53 with 80 percent of their pay and 3 percent annual raises, the state couldn’t afford to build new schools, she said. She won a three-person race by three percentage points of the vote.

Big money didn’t hijack candidate themes

When heavily funded outside groups first broke into American politics in the 1990s, a major concern was that they would impose their own message on campaigns, drowning out the voices of candidates. Early on, that proved to be the case with issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, or even gun control. But an early analysis of competitive races in the 2014 campaign shows that, at least for House races, candidates and political parties held their own both in levels of funding and the tone of campaign advertising.

Parties and candidates outspent outside groups in almost every close House race in 2014, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington. “This was different from 20 years ago, when outside groups were trying to push their own message, such as trying to bring social issues to the fore which candidates didn’t want to talk about,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.

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