Pew calls it the "Meh Midterm": with weeks left in the 2014 election, only about 15 percent of Americans are closely following news about the midterms.
That's a lot lower than the (still pretty low) 25 percent who were closely following the news at this point in the 2010 midterm, or the 26 percent who were closely following the news at this point in the 2006 midterm. The finding isn't a fluke: "In eight surveys this year, news interest in the midterms has never topped 16% in a given week," reports Pew.
It's not the election's fault. The campaign itself is as fascinating and close as any in memory. Republicans are slightly favored to take the Senate — but Democrats could easily hold it. No one actually knows what will happen if Republicans cut Democrats down to 48 seats, but independents Greg Orman (Kansas) and Larry Pressler (South Dakota) win their elections —which they might! This buzzing uncertainty about the basic meaning of the election night results is rare. The 2014 election is doing its best to be interesting.
The problem is it can't change the basic post-election reality: Washington will still suck either way.
Pew's results back my impression of Washington right now. The midterm isn't dominating the city in the way elections usually do. Ebola is a bigger issue, as is ISIS. And that, really, is the problem for this election: it doesn't seem likely to really change anything anyone cares about.
Elections are about stakes. The 2006 midterm election was about the Democrats' promise — quickly broken, but still — to end the Iraq War. The 2010 election was about the GOP's promise to block President Obama's agenda and cut the deficit.
These elections felt consequential because they were consequential. Democrats really could have defunded the Iraq War if they won in 2006. Republicans really could — and did — freeze Obama's agenda after winning in 2010. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have been able to make the case that the plausible 2014 outcomes will change much. Democrats won't take back the House, and without the House, they can't kickstart Obama's agenda. Republicans might win the Senate, and that'll give them the leverage to do...what they're already doing.
More to the point, perhaps, the 2014 election feels ephemeral. Senate Democrats want to win, but they're not too worried about losing. They note that they're defending only 10 seats to the GOP's 24 in 2016 — and doing so amidst the more favorable demographics of a presidential election. If Democrats lose the Senate by a seat or two this year, they're likely to take it back in 2016. And it's not as if much is going to get done in the meantime.
The easiest argument for consequence that either party has is a morbid one: a Supreme Court Justice could retire or die. In that event, the 2014 election may prove to be one of the most consequential in recent American history. But for some reason, no candidate has adopted "Four Supreme Court Justices are over 70!" as their campaign slogan.
This is a cramped and shortsighted view of why elections matter. For one thing, nominations are still flowing through the Senate, and the federal bench will look rather different depending on whether Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell is Senate Majority Leader.
For another, the crucial majorities that pass legislation are built over many elections. A seat Democrats lose in Colorado in 2014 might be the vote that President Hillary Clinton needed to pass universal pre-k in 2017. A seat Republicans lose in Kansas might be the seat President Mike Pence needed to secure a majority. The 2014 election, in other words, may not lead to much action in 2015, but it could prove decisive in 2017. You never know.
But the people who aren't paying attention to the election probably aren't reading this column, either.