I am sure that President Barack Obama hoped that the worst news he’d get last week was Michael Jordan’s assessment of his golf game, but being president is seldom that easy. The president and the Democratic Party suffered astounding losses in Tuesday’s Midterm elections and he is taking the brunt of the blame. There is no silver lining to what occurred in the 2014 midterms, and if you’re a Democrat, the shining light you think see at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train. But as the weeks of hand wringing and finger pointing and political shade throwing commence, it might be important to understand exactly what really happened and what it means for African Americans politically in the next two years.
About Last (Tuesday) Night
Republicans won eight seats in the Senate and possibly more by the time runoffs and vote counting are finished. They also managed to hold onto governor’s mansions in Wisconsin, Florida and Kansas, despite extremely unpopular incumbents. But probably the most important result of the elections occurred on the State House level, where Republicans now control the largest number of state legislatures since the Eisenhower administration. The significance of this can’t be understated. State legislatures are responsible for carving out voting districts, state legislatures are responsible for passing and implementing voter ID laws, determining if Medicaid expansion occurs, school funding and housing rights. In other words: local policies have a lot more to do with the day to day lives of African Americans than our mostly do-nothing Congress and those states just turned beet red. Political science research, history and common sense can explain why Democrats lost so many seats in the Senate and gave up even more ground in the House of Representatives but the governor’s mansions and state legislatures were a bit of a surprise to most pundits and analysts who’d been watching the numbers for weeks.
These Polls Ain’t Loyal
Part of the surprise from the 2014 Midterms is due to the fact that this year featured some of the worst and most unreliable polling we’ve seen in an American election in almost a decade. Pollsters blew it in the 2008 presidential election by radically underestimating African American turnout. Since then, more polling agencies like the Pew and YouGov realized that over 75% of African Americans under the age of 30 are cell phone only, which means older polling methods dependent on landlines or area codes to determine voting behavior will miss a large chunk of voters. The counting and estimates of African American voting and voting behavior in general have improved steadily each election cycle until Tuesday’s complete flop. Most pollsters predicted anemic turnout by Black voters, but bad showing for Democrats in key races like North Carolina and Georgia wasn’t due to African Americans, who turned out at levels similar to 2010 and sometimes a little higher, despite grotesque voter suppression tactics. It was White democrats who dropped the ball in the South, with turnouts dropping anywhere from 7 to 12% in some states. This turned “safe” races into nail biters and doomed candidates like Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. On the flip side, the Maryland governor’s race, which no one was paying attention to, had a White Republican beating an African American Democrat due to low Black turnout, and African Americans voting Republican after seeing ads like this. In other words, nobody seemed to have any idea what Black voters were going to do until the last minute, and it cost Obama and the Democrats dearly.
Say My Name, Say My Name
President Obama took a tremendous amount of pride in saying that while his name was not on the ballot, his policies were. Some Democratic analysts went crazy, begging Obama to stay in Washington and not gin up Republican opposition. Despite the lowest unemployment rate in 6 years, Wall-street sitting pretty and gas prices so low Fahvergnugen is back in style Democrats couldn’t run away from Obama and his policies fast enough. Kentucky Democratic candidate Allison Lundegren Grimes denied voting for Obama 4 times. Hell, Peter only did it thrice. Ironically it was Gary Peters a Democrat running for an open seat in Michigan who embraced President Obama’s policies and he won his race. Which stands to reason, from a policy standpoint many of President Obama’s policies remain popular. It’s Obama that a large number of voters, especially the over 60 White and male voters who made up over 37% of the midterm electorate, that people have a problem with. How else can you explain Red state voters in Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas voting to increase the minimum wage (one of Obama’s signature issues since 2012), and at the same time voting in Senate and gubernatorial candidates who have stood firmly against minimum wage increases. Or red states like Kentucky and West Virginia seeing huge drops in the number of uninsured but still voting for Senators who want to repeal Obamacare. As Mary Landrieu (D – LA for now) stated plainly, President Obama’s unmistakable Blackness was always going to be a stumbling block in these Southern red states, despite the hypocritical embrace of many of his policies.
The only people who can be truly happy about the 2014 Midterms are Republicans, Pro-Lifers, Vote suppressors and free market capitalists, groups mind you, that don’t necessarily overlap. Yep President Obama was quite comfortable during his post-election press conference, a radical departure from his sad Charlie Brown act after the 2010 midterms. This probably reflects the fact that Obama knows the big picture of these past elections. Congressional approval has been at a historic low of 15% for almost two years. To put that in perspective, amongst Americans Vladimir Putin has an approval rating of 9% and North Korea has an approval rating of 11%. Congressionally, last night was less an embrace of the Republican agenda, which clearly most voters don’t approve of, as much as it was a political temper tantrum against a Congress and government that never seems to be doing any actual governing. When Rush Limbaugh admits that Republicans are being sent to Congress to “Stop Obama” and not govern the president knows what’s up. Washington isn’t broken, it’s just filled with a Congress that would rather see the nation go to hell in a handbasket than let THIS president (because he’s a Democrat, or because he’s Black, or because he’s too aloof, choose your excuse) take credit for anything. Expect the president to continue to push through judges that will protect civil rights, continue investigations into Ferguson and Florida and continue his spotty record with HBCUs.
African Americans will have to scrape together local constituencies and coalitions and slog out fights in order to get anything done. Eventually this anti-Obama fever will break, and some presidential candidate who isn’t Black, will tout the same policies as Obama but will somehow be deemed more palatable to a certain segment of swing voters and members of Congress. Because in the end, this election showed us that President Obama’s policies aren’t really the problem, for many midterm voters, they just don’t like who’s delivering them.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a Professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio. He frequently appears on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CNN and Fox Business. Follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson