Republicans Didn't Win the Midterms (They Just Lost Less)

The real winners last week were disgust, apathy, and the push for political disruption.

Talk about a shellacking. Two-thirds of voters in last week's elections are dissatisfied or angry with Republican Party leaders in Congress, according to exit polls, and nearly six in 10 disapprove of the GOP altogether.

While it's undeniable which party won the most campaigns this year, the Republican Party didn't win the overall election "“ not with numbers like that. The winners were disgust, apathy, and a gnawing desire for a better choice "“ an alternative to what the two major parties are currently offering.

History will record 2014 as one in a pattern of national elections that amounted to a vote of no confidence for the political status quo.

  • In 2010, voters changed ownership of the House from Democrat to Republican in protest of President Obama.
  • In 2008, voters changed ownership of the White House from Republican to Democrat in protest of President Bush.
  • In 2006, voters gave Democrats control of the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships in what Bush called a "thumpin'."
  • In 2004 and 2012, unpopular presidents won reelection by essentially disqualifying their opponents in brutally negative campaigns. Bush and Obama epitomize this era of voter unrest, because they campaigned successfully as the better of two lousy choices.

With the GOP takeover of the Senate, neither side has held the chamber more the eight consecutive years since 1980, a period of volatility unlike anything since the late 19th century.

The most obvious takeaway from the 2014 midterms is that they were a repudiation of Obama. One-third of voters said they cast their ballot in protest of the president, a rate similar to 2010 and 2006. Six of every 10 voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with Obama, equal to the amount who said the same of GOP leaders. A solid majority of voters said they disapprove of his party.

And, of course, Democrats lost control of the Senate, lost ground in the GOP-controlled House, and lost far more than they won in statehouses. But there's more to it.

Two-thirds of voters say the country is seriously on the wrong track, up 12 points since 2012. That's the second-highest wrong-track number in exit polls since 1990 "“ and both parties own it.

Only two of 10 voters trust government to do what's right most of the time. Half expect the lives of the next generation to be worse, the most negative view of the so-called American Dream since the question was first asked in 1996. Eight in 10 voters worry about the direction of the economy in the next year. Both parties are responsible for those numbers.

Amid the triumphs, Republicans lost among voters under age 40, all minority voters, and the least- and most-educated voters "“ none of which points to a healthy future for the GOP.

A pre-election poll suggested that, second only to the economy, breaking gridlock is a major issue for voters. They didn't vote for the GOP as much as they voted against Obama and gridlock. They want leaders to solve the era's big issues "“ not use them to divide Americans and win elections.

These trends lead to two possible outcomes. The first is depressing, and potentially crippling: Voters continue to cast protest votes, extending the era of boom-and-bust cycles, with power shifting between two unpopular, dysfunctional parties.

The second is disruptive and uncertain, but renewing: Old political structures and habits give way to new systems that are transparent, authentic, competent, and empowering in a way that appeals to the rising generation of millennials.

Among the old structures that need to be sidelined or radically changed are the two major parties. Neither actually competes to be the better party, only the least-lousy choice. Neither is capable at the moment of winning elections, only losing less than the other guys. Neither party inspires, but they both divide and, occasionally, conquer.

Looking ahead to 2016, Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Elizabeth Warren seek to disrupt party orthodoxies via their separate brands of of anti-establishment populism. But their mission may be impossible from inside the parties, the Senate, and Washington. Voters have lost all trust in those institutions.

Which is why last week's results were less of a victory for the GOP than they were a warning.