The dullness comes from this election’s lack of a compelling macro-theme. Yes, there are national refrains: Democrats in state after state call their Republican opponents heartless misogynists; Republicans call their Democratic opponents Obama clones. But there’s no big national issue on which voters feel that they can change the country’s course. It’s not that candidates today are more cynical or homogenized than in midterms past. It’s that the subjects they’re discussing cynically and homogenously don’t matter as much.
A look at the last four midterms makes the point. In November 1998, Bill Clinton’s impeachment hung in the balance. After proving initially wary of the issue, in the campaign’s final week the National Republican Congressional Committee launched an advertising campaign in 30 swing districts aimed at rallying the GOP base. One spot showed two mothers asking each other, “What did you tell your kids?” But the ads backfired. The people most energized by the specter of impeachment were Democrats, especially African Americans. (It was the 1998 impeachment struggle that launched Moveon.org—as in “move on to something more important than impeachment.”)
After expecting to win numerous House seats, the GOP ended up losing five. Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign. Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey declared that as a result of the election, “Any serious effort to remove President Clinton from office is effectively over.”
In 2002, the stakes were just as high. Roughly a month before Election Day, the House and Senate had voted to authorize President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. But because Bush had agreed to a last-ditch United Nations inspection effort, and because he was still seeking UN approval for military action, many still believed an invasion could be averted. The midterms were thus cast as a referendum on war.
Like 2014, 2002 had plenty of micro-drama. After voting against the war, progressive hero Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash a week before Election Day. In Georgia, Republicans ran ads featuring Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in an effort to depict Vietnam Veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland as soft on homeland security. But what made these local storylines nationally compelling was their connection to the still unresolved question of whether America would go to war.
By 2006, America was in the middle of another fierce debate about Iraq: Not whether to get in, but whether to get out. In a Washington Post poll two weeks before Election Day, a plurality of Americans called Iraq their top concern. And in exit polls, 55 percent of voters said they wanted some or all U.S. troops withdrawn. As in 2002, the dramatic local stories—Senator Joe Lieberman’s loss to an anti-war challenger in the Connecticut Democratic primary, ex-Marine Jim Webb’s defeat of potential presidential contender George Allen in Virginia—connected to this national debate in a way the key races this year do not. As it turned out, the victorious congressional Democrats did not force George W. Bush to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. But the prospect that they might gave the election its passion.