Midterm elections for dummies

As a recovering political junkie (having seen the sausage made at the highest levels, I have pretty much accepted the futility and meaninglessness of the entire endeavor), I find it funny how little even fairly educated people seem to understand midterm elections. Even many so-called experts seem to fail to grasp the obvious reality that midterms have about as much in common with presidential elections as NCAA basketball has with the NBA.

They are both the same game, but are played under an entirely different set of rules.

As a “conservative,” it pains me to accept (which I did in early 2008) that for a Republican to get elected president, he/she would have to be a nearly perfect candidate, run a nearly flawless campaign, run against a poor candidate … and get really lucky.

However, when it comes to midterm elections like the one coming up next month, the weather is not nearly as foreboding for the party for whom Democrats have given me no other choice but to vote. Here, the winds that normally gust directly in the face of the GOP tend to be still and, in this particular year, may even blow lightly at its back.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but the three most powerful deal with turnout, geography and the news media.

For a variety of reasons, turnout is always much lower in a midterm election than it is for the presidential variety. When more people vote, Democrats almost always do better.

This is for two basic reasons.

One, there are more Democrats in the general population than there are Republicans. Two, those who care least about the process (and therefore tend not to vote in midterm elections) are far more likely to be Democrats because they usually come from the group that pays little or nothing in taxes.

Geography helps Republicans in midterms because of gerrymandering (the political drawing of district lines) and the fact that rural voters tend to be given statistically greater weight by the Constitution than urbanites. This means they currently start each cycle with almost enough “safe-ish” seats for a majority in the House of Representatives.

Kentucky is a perfect example of this reality. Every House seat in the state appears to be totally safe now because Louisville has been given its own “Yarmuth” seat, while the rest of the Commonwealth is controlled by Republicans. Frankly, the Louisville television stations should sue John Yarmuth and the Kentucky Legislature for making their congressional district so noncompetitive that it has cost them millions of dollars in free ad revenue over the last few cycles.

The Constitutional advantage given to rural voters also extends to the Senate, where the least populated (usually conservative) states get the same number of representatives as the most populated (usually liberal) states.

Finally, perhaps the biggest “advantage” Republicans have in 2014 is that their greatest adversary in presidential elections, the national news media, is rendered almost totally impotent in midterms.

The No. 1 reason that it is almost impossible for a Republican to get elected president is that the national news media is like a horde of hidden snipers ready to take out anyone in the GOP who looks like a legitimate threat (look out Marco Rubio!). Since at least 2004, they have essentially become the offensive line of whomever Democrats chose as their quarterback.

However, while it is easy for them to destroy one or two (if the VP candidate is a ratings grabber like Sarah Palin) candidates at a time, it is impossible for the media to do that to hundreds of non-celebrities running across the country simultaneously. Fortunately for the GOP, local media outlets no longer do any real political reporting (it’s bad for ratings!) and therefore the liberal media’s influence on midterm elections is almost nonexistent.

In 2006, the national news media did their very best to try and “nationalize” the midterms by blowing the Mark Foley scandal out of proportion and using it to kneecap the entire Republican Party (even though Foley was immediately forced to resign). That, combined with a horrendous environment caused by an out-of-favor president, gave Democrats (led by Yarmuth) the biggest midterm victory they will likely see in at least a generation.

This time around, the situation is virtually reversed, with Democrats being burdened by an unpopular president and a slew of Senate seats to defend in so-called red states. Interestingly, the closest the news media has come to nationalizing this election (other than President Obama’s misguided “my policies are on the ballot” narcissism) has been in Kentucky’s hotly contested Senate race.

With Alison Lundergan Grimes inexplicably unwilling to admit that she voted for Barack Obama, the contest has become a way to measure just how toxic his influence on this election really is. Ironically, if Obama were actually on the ballot, the chances of Grimes winning would be, I believe — counterintuitively — enhanced.

After all, it is hard to argue that turnout in areas where Grimes will need to dominate wouldn’t be higher if Obama were running. Therefore, we have the bizarre likelihood that Grimes will lose both because Obama is highly unpopular and because he is not on the ballot!

About the only hope I see for Democrats to maintain control of the Senate (barring a last-second GOP scandal the media could use as a national weapon) is that the GOP only gets to 50 seats on Election Day, an “independent” candidate in Kansas or South Dakota wins and decides to become a Democrat, and the national media swoops into Louisiana for a run-off election to save Mary Landrieu and the Democrats’ hide. All of which would make Vice President Joe Biden (who would break 50 – 50 ties) the most powerful man in the United States Senate.

Now do you understand why I have lost so much interest in politics? s


John Ziegler is a former Louisville radio and television host who now lives in Los Angeles and can be reached through www.JohnZiegler.com.