By all accounts, 2014 looks to be a very good year for the Republican party. The average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows the GOP leading in seven Democratic-held Senate seats, while they are behind in none of their own; the party is also within striking distance in another four Democratic seats. Moreover, Sean Trende’s recent work connecting presidential job approval to Senate outcomes is extremely persuasive, and suggests that many if not most of these remaining seats should break toward the Republican party as undecided voters ultimately cast a vote against the president.
On the surface, it looks a lot like 2010, a point that I noted in this week’s magazine. And yet, how many conservatives actually feel that way? That year, the media was slow (as usual) to pick up on the building GOP wave, but conservatives nationwide were deeply attuned to it. This year, I do not get the same impression. Instead, I sense more caution than optimism.
In fact I am reminded of the 1978 midterm elections. Mostly forgotten (because they were so uneventful), the example of that year may yet prove illustrative. That election was a rough one for the Republican party. All of the ingredients for a big victory were extant, but the triumph never materialized.
For starters, Jimmy Carter was by that point unpopular. By February, his job approval had fallen under 50 percent in the Gallup poll, and would not recover until he signed the Camp David Accords in September—but even this would only bring him barely above 50 percent after the midterm, and just for a time. The public then judged Carter in much the same way that succeeding generations have; while good intentioned, he was nevertheless out of his depth. Moreover, his electoral coalition in 1976 was exceedingly narrow. It depended above all on sweeping the South, a feat no Democratic candidate had accomplished since Franklin Roosevelt (and none has done since). He lost every state in the West except Hawaii, as well as key Midwest battlegrounds like Illinois and Iowa.
Meanwhile, Democrats were highly exposed in Congress. In the House, Democrats still had historically large majorities because of the 1974 wave, including over 200 seats in the North (which Republicans still dominated at that point). The Senate battle that year was evenly split, but Democrats were defending five seats in states that went for Nixon (twice) and Ford, not to mention another four in the Deep South, where the GOP had been surging of late.
And yet...the results were kind of a dud. Republicans picked up eight Democratic Senate seats, but on the other hand forfeited seats in Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. All of these states except Massachusetts had backed Ford two years prior. The House results were worse, and quite miserable in the aggregate. Despite having to defend more seats than at any time since the Great Society wave election of 1964, Democrats only coughed up a net of fifteen seats to Republicans. Again, considering Ford’s strength in the North, the recent Democratic surge there, and Carter’s weak standing, this was a massive disappointment.
Ultimately, the stark reality was that the coalition that powered Nixon to an enormous victory in 1972—consisting of Republicans, independents, and working class Democrats—had disintegrated. It would form again under Reagan, and persist through the 1994 midterm, but it was absent that year. Increasingly disgruntled with Carter’s ineptitude, the public was not sold on the GOP.