How the midterm elections became such a confusing mess

Fired up, ready to go…? EPA/Keith Bedford

The US midterm elections will decide who gets control of Congress for Barack Obama’s last two years in office. A hugely decisive moment at first glance – but in reality, the 2014 midterms have devolved into a messy, confusing and downbeat affair.

Even A-list election maven Nate Silver considers them boring (true to form, he predicted as much in 2013). His Senate forecast model currently gives a 74% chance of the Republicans wining a majority in that chamber – virtually guaranteeing more of the gridlock and dysfunction that has obstructed US politics since 2010.

Even to the interested observer, a clear nationwide narrative is hard to pick out, and there appears to be a dearth of urgent arresting issues. Or, more accurately, no-one seems willing to engage with them.

Across the US, even candidates in too-close-to-call seats are steering away from television debates and stump appearances. Of course, many have long argued that these are trite affairs and would be no loss to the political process – but at least they provide a platform for even the most basic acknowledgement of issues.

Instead, tabloid hysteria about the spread of Ebola, with three confirmed cases in a country of 319m people, has sucked all the air out of the campaign and choked off discussion of the real problems at hand – of which there is no shortage.

Staying at home

After all, universal suffrage in the US did not come easy. As recently as half a century ago, significant sections of the population were still denied this basic right. And yet, despite this, voter interest in the 2014 US midterm elections has continuously been described by pollsters as “modest”.

Some of this is to be expected at the best of times; history demonstrates that it is a tall order for either party to energise its base when the presidency is not at stake. In practice, this means that older (largely conservative) voters will turn out in reasonable numbers, while their younger (more liberal) counterparts stay at home.

Accordingly, the Pew Research Center’s mid-October survey showed that the Republicans are far more engaged with this election, even though they have a substantially worse image problem than the Democrats. An overall conservative advantage appears inevitable, since a mere 23% of 18-29 year olds polled stated that they intend to go to the polls on November 4.

But the staggeringly poor turnout anticipated from the youth vote can’t just be explained as apathy. There is a long history of voter suppression in the US, and in recent times, the issue has raised its unattractive head once more.

There are, for example, reports of efforts to remove early voting stations from university campuses. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union states that result in reduced voting access.

In Texas, for example, an anticipated 600,000 citizens may be denied the right to vote as a result of new voter ID law. The vast majority affected will be African-American and Latino voters, two groups who traditionally support the Democrats by wide margins.

Following the money

What price a Congress? Public Citizen/Brendan Hoffman, CC BY-NC-SA

If money is, in Jesse Unruh’s words, “the mother’s milk of politics”, then Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission (2010) is its wet nurse.

A Supreme Court ruling described by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as the current court’s “worst ever,” Citizens United means that unlimited money can be thrown at campaigns in place of candidates engaging in any meaningful debate on the issues. Opensecrets.org has estimated the price tag of the 2014 midterms to be a cool $3.67 billion, with $689m of that coming from outside spending, and tax-exempt organisations known as “527 groups”.

A USA Today editorial, meanwhile, accused the “debate duckers” of running for office “largely through advertisements” – and while this is obviously perfectly legal, it hardly helps the democratic process.

Lame duck

For any president, the post-midterm stretch of a second term – the “lame duck” period – is invariably a time of waning power and influence, not to mention declining public opinion. That said, the latest Gallup polls give Barack Obama a 42% approval rate, which although nothing to boast about, is still 10% higher than his predecessor’s at the same point in his presidency.

Nobody’s friend? Peter Macdiarmid/PA Wire

Obama has a fine line to walk. Clearly, some Democratic candidates are keen to keep their distance from him in order to avoid brand contamination. Midterm elections habitually offer the electorate an easy punch at an administration that’s outstayed its welcome, but Democrats are keenly aware that if their traditional base does not get the vote out on November 4, they risk allowing the Republicans a clean sweep.

Shrugging off questions about his party colleagues’ attempts to avoid him, the president has still been trying to put himself front and centre – in particular, by making sustained efforts to connect directly with African-American voters, using a variety of methods.

This has not gone to plan. In a radio interview with his old mentor, Reverend Al Sharpton, he spoke of Democratic congressional candidates who were “strong allies and supporters of me.” The Washington Post immediately accused the president of “gift-wrapping” another soundbite for Republicans, who had already made political hay with his previous statement that while he himself is not on the ballot in November, his policies are – basically tying himself to candidates who are desperately trying to distance themselves from his administration.

So whatever the result on November 4, the 2014 midterms are unlikely to go down in history as a pivotal moment for Obama, for American democracy or government. And with the potentially more earth-shattering 2016 cycle almost ready to begin in earnest, perhaps that’s no great surprise.