Yale experts’ insights on the 2014 midterm elections

True to recent history, the 2014 elections featured an electorate largely critical of a president midway through his second term in office, Yale political scientists said. The only surprise was the degree of discontent.

“The election had more of a Republican edge than I expected,” said David Mayhew, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Political Science and a noted authority on the history of Congress. “The polls were off.”

On Nov. 4, voters returned control of the U.S. Senate to Republicans, as the GOP picked up seven seats. Republicans also strengthened their majority status in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Such shifts away from the president’s party also occurred during the second midterm elections for Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Woodrow Wilson, note the Yale experts.

Mayhew said the victory margins of some of the GOP Senate winners were quite impressive, including Tom Cotton’s 17-point win in Arkansas and Mitch McConnell’s 15-point win in Kentucky. Also telling, according to Mayhew, were the closer-than-expected Congressional races that Democrats won in Maryland and New York.

Eitan Hersh, assistant professor of political science, noted that senators who came into office during the Democratic wave of 2008 encountered a much different electorate this year. “That wave isn’t there anymore. In fact, the opposite was there,” Hersh said.

Hersh also looked at the relationship between outside political campaign contributions and election outcomes. What he found was a variety of outcomes.

“Most of these big donations are happening in the more competitive races, where there are big donors on both sides,” he said. “There’s a lot of parity in this big money.”

For liberal voters, a deeper look at the election data did contain some positives, according to Vesla Weaver, assistant professor of political science and African American studies.

Weaver pointed out that a variety of progressive measures passed at the state level. There were increases in the minimum wage in Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Alaska; a proposition to lower penalties for drug possession and petty theft in California; and a law to allow for earned sick time in Massachusetts, for example.

“Many of these measures enjoyed quite broad support across a wide range of groups and in places that have histories of regressive/punitive ballot propositions,” Weaver said. “Black and Latino turnout was high for a midterm, and blacks have the most representation in our nation’s legislature in any time in history. So, even though this election was seen as a repudiation of Democrats, the story is more complex.”

Meanwhile, there were 17 Yale alumni who won election or re-election to the Senate, House, or a governorship. The Yale victors were Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in the Senate; Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), David Price (D-N.C.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Lois Capps (D-Calif.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Steven “Brett” Guthrie (R-Ky.), Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) in the House; and governors Edmund “Jerry” Brown (D-Calif.), Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), and Gina Raimondo (D-R.I.).

Photo via Shutterstock.

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332