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The Campaign Victory That Wasn’t

If elections are indeed the laboratory of democracy, the midterms proved that with enough time, money and the right message, a political victory of mysticism can overcome empiricism. The costliest midterm elections in American history subjected a polarized, dejected and fatigued electorate to almost $4 billion of campaign spending aimed at persuading a historically small percentage of midterm voters in a handful of historically Red State races. Republicans outspent Democrats and thanks to the 2010 Citizens United ruling, close to $1 billion of outside group money – including elusive “dark money” – wooed voters who would have voted precisely the way they did even without the ads. One-fourth of eligible voters turned out to vote. Of those that did, 65% where ages 45-65 and 75% where white. As Jamelle Bouie of Slate writes, the midterm electorate that chose this Republican Congress is itself a Republican electorate drawn from a subset of Republican voters. Remember, polls show more than a third of Republicans still believe Obama wasn’t born in the US and suspect he could be the antichrist. Seriously.

Perhaps more fascinating is the paradoxical even dystopian nature of the American electorate. According to CNN Exit Polls, 8 in 10 of Americans disapprove of how Congress is doing its job, including Republicans; 6 in 10 are displeased with President Obama; a full 44% have a positive view of Democrats while 40% have a positive view of Republicans. American voters essentially ceded Congressional control to the party they like the least to run a government they like even less. Which reinforces the advertising maxim that consumers (voters) are not rational but buy (vote) based on emotion.

In hindsight, few question that President Obama and the Democrats failed at successfully expressing the US economy’s marked improvements over the last six years. Most Americans – if they even knew there were midterms afoot – tuned out because they were too busy trying to make ends meet. The deficit may be down but labor markets remain the most stubborn corner of the economy to improve. The preverbal 99% survive on labor’s real medium incomes, hovering at $51,930 and lower than 2008 levels.   While Wall Street may be trading at record highs, 52% of Americans own no stocks. Unemployment is at a six year low, but low wage jobs account for 43% of new jobs added during the recovery. The Affordable Care Act – much to the chagrin of soon-to-be-sworn-in Senate Majority Leader McConnell – is outperforming expectations, especially in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and is projected to save 40% of initial premium estimates. But none of that has trickled down to the college graduates who cannot find the jobs they need to pay down their collective $1.4 trillion loan debt. Or the out-of-work laborers who have been replaced by technology or those willing to work for lower wages. And we should never forget that 48% of Americans are living at or below the poverty line.

These constituencies don’t know much about policy, understand legislative process even less and historically don’t vote in midterms. And politicians know that. Which explains why Republicans won by simply repeating how the president hadn’t delivered prosperity and so it was time to punish Democrats. Republicans didn’t present solutions to counter Obama’s policies. They simply pandered to the lowest common denominator and presented a unified integrated campaign.

Tuesday’s results are not as much a repudiation of Democratic policies or President Obama.  Or a powerful mandate favoring Republicans. The results are but a blinkered referendum on the state of the American electorate that indicted far more than Democratic candidates. It unleashed what by all accounts will be a 114th Congress mired in yet another wave of gridlock that will punish the very people most in need of meaningful economic, environmental, and social legislation. We the People.

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