There are no mandates on Election Day. The night Obama won reelection, I argued that a small-bore and brutish campaign guaranteed the president a shallow victory, one without a mandate. “Mandates are rarely won on election night,” I wrote Nov. 6, 2012. “They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching.” Ditto, now, for the GOP. Two years ago, I thought Obama was capable of building a mandate through good governing. I was wrong. My new prediction: Republicans will misread this election as badly as Obama did his reelection.
Any GOP gains will be short-lived. Even if you dismiss my pessimism about the GOP, there is the inconvenient fact that six first-term Republicans senators will face reelection in states Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. Politico reporter Burgess Everett called 2016 a “mirror image” of this year’s Senate campaign. Furthermore, even a wave election in 2014 won’t automatically fix the structural and image problems that many GOP strategists worry will block their road to the White House.
Politics will still be broken. History will consider the 2014 midterms a referendum against the status quo, against Washington, against the political establishment, and against incumbency. While nothing about the election suggests growing support for the GOP brand, multiple signs point toward a rise of populism that might transform—even radically disrupt—the institutions of politics and government.