11/05/2014 08:30 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

2014 Takeover Takeaways: It's All About Turnout

It was a great night for Republicans as they nearly swept all the important U.S. Senate races and won some governorships that seemed very unlikely. There has been a lot of handwringing about the role of President Obama, ISIS, and even Ebola in the outcome. I think the results were driven by two seemingly conflicting emotions -- anger and apathy. Add in the impact of age and other demographics in the makeup of the electorate and you get a clear understanding of what happened.

• Nearly two-thirds of voters in recent polls have expressed anger about the country's direction. The president's approval ratings are at their lowpoint in his administration. Roughly 60 percent of Republicans said their votes were anti-Obama votes. Congress has even lower approval ratings at 78 percent. A CBS poll showed that the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Nearly 80 percent of those who cited the economy are worried about its direction. Nearly two-thirds of voters think the country is on the wrong track. That helps to explain some of the results. We should be careful not to overplay the anger narrative, however, as very few House incumbents lost.

• Apathy is notable as well. Many of the younger voters who helped deliver Barack Obama to the presidency have not stood up for him in mid-term elections. The Democrats depend on notoriously fickle brew of younger voters and minorities, two groups that are inconsistent in their turnouts. In 2012, young voters, African Americans, and Latinos represented 19%, 13%, and 10%, respectively, of the national electorate. This year, those same groups represented 13%, 12%, and 8%, respectively, of the national electorate, according to CBS News. The smaller share of the electorate was not because White turned out in overwhelming numbers. It was because younger voters and minorities stayed home. This is a really key issue. These groups are impatient and are not yet ready to vote change from the top all the way down to the grassroots. And if my students are the gauge, there is serious doubt about the legitimacy of our political system. Young people are suspicious and think their votes don't matter.

• Age/Race/Ideology. Mid-term electorates tend to be older, Whiter, and more ideologically conservative, three characteristics that bode well for Republicans. In 2012, older voters, Whites, and conservatives comprised 16%, 72%, and 35%, respectively, of the electorate. This year, those numbers grew to 23%, 75%, and 36% respectively. While that's great for Republicans in in mid-terms, it leaves them vulnerable in presidential elections. It also makes clear that America is a bifurcated electorate: one for mid-term elections. The other for presidential ones.

It should be noted, however, that there is also a strong structural component to these results. The Democrats had to defend a number of seats in red states. The Republicans will face the same challenge in 2016, in which there are a number of competitive seats currently held by the GOP.

Quick Hits

1. I think it's hard to call this a mandate for Republican governance. One of the issues that Republicans have consistently opposed, a minimum wage increase, passed in a number of traditionally red states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Newly elected Republicans from these states will have a hard time arguing against a national increase given what has happened in their own states.

2. Republicans now have ownership in American public policy. They have to now produce legislation that can pass through both chambers. That is no small order given the recent factionalism within the GOP. Look for the tea party wing to push hard and cause continued problems for congressional leadership.


Michael Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University where he teaches courses in political parties and African American politics. He is author of the book Republicans and the Black Vote. His next book, to be published in 2015, examines conservatism and Black voter suppression.