There are two things that come out of elections: results and narratives.
The results are clear. Democrats got destroyed. But the narrative — the "why" of the election — is contested. Did Democrats lose the Senate because liberalism is a bankrupt ideology or because President Obama is a bad communicator or because voters simply develop some mystical loathing of the majority party in the sixth year of a presidency?
This seems like a dumb debate — results are knowable, so who cares about narratives? — but it actually matters. Politicians act based on what they believe the lessons of the last election were. And because the narratives end up actually being important, the different sides fight to secure the narratives that are friendliest to their hopes. But a lot of the narratives are wrong. Not wrong in the sense of being a lie — they all have a kernel of truth — but wrong in the sense that they don't really explain what happened Tuesday night.
Here are five of the explanations you'll hear most often — and should be most skeptical of.
1) The Democratic coalition just doesn't do midterms
What's the argument? The electorate in midterm elections is older and whiter than it is in presidential elections, and that gives Republicans a structural advantage. As Ron Brownstein wrote, "the modern Democratic coalition is a boom-and-bust coalition that depends heavily on minorities and young people who turn out much less regularly in midterm than presidential elections." A lot of Democrats use this fact to explain away their weak performance in recent midterms.
Why is it wrong? The problem here is that the excuse is, itself, just a restatement of the problem. A party that can't turn its voters out for midterm elections has a huge problem. Congress matters. It comes first in the Constitution. It decides, for the most part, whether the president will actually get anything done. A party with a coalition that only really turns out in presidential years is a party that only has half of a coalition.
Moreover, it's not as if Democrats never win midterm elections. They swept the board in 2006, for instance — and, by most any measure, the country's demographics have become more favorable for Democrats in the intervening eight years. The Democratic boom-and-bust cycle doesn't explain away the problem the party had in this election. It is the problem.
2) The election was a referendum on liberalism
What's the argument? The logic basically goes like this: the election is a referendum on Obama. Obama is a liberal. The election is a referendum on liberalism. And liberalism lost.
Why is it wrong? Well, for one thing, Obama hasn't passed many major bills — liberal or otherwise — since the 2012 election. The most significant legislative accomplishment since the election was the compromise legislation heading off the fiscal cliff — and it's hard to call a deal endorsed by Grover Norquist hyperliberal.
But the clearer rebuttal comes directly from the polls. As Zachary Goldfarb writes, voters have "fallen out with Obama, but on the biggest issues facing Congress, they still agree with Democrats on ... almost everything. That includes issues like raising the minimum wage, making the rich pay more in taxes, letting illegal immigrants stay in the United States, taking action to stem global warming, legalizing same sex marriage and fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it." Here's his graph:
The fate of the ballot initiatives reflected those polls. The personhood ballot initiatives lost in Colorado and North Dakota. Marijuana was legalized in D.C., Oregon, and Alaska. The minimum wage was raised in Arkansas, Illinois, and Nebraska (though the Illinois initiative will still require ratification from the legislature). Washington state expanded background checks on guns. "So voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and GOP representation," tweeted FiveThirtyEight's Ben Casselman. "Ok then."
3) The 2014 wipeout just reflects a bad Senate map for Democrats
What's the argument? The Senate map was terrible for Democrats. As the above map, created by the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, shows, if the 2012 election had taken place only in the states voting for Senate on Tuesday, Mitt Romney would have won the electoral college 165-130. So of course Democrats lost the 2014 election. The game was rigged.
Why is it wrong? The House results show the problem. There, Democrats were competing in every state, and they still lost badly. If Democrats had gained ground in the House but lost in the Senate it would be easy to blame the map. But they lost in both chambers.
And then you get to the gubernatorial races. Democrats lost governor races in Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Massachusetts. You really can't blame losing elections in Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Massachusetts on the innate conservatism of those states. Democrats were rejected in blue and red states alike.
And, of course, there are direct measures of the Democratic Party's problems, too. Obama's approval ratings have been routinely 5-10 points beneath his 2012 approval ratings pretty much all year. The bottom line is the Democratic Party's standardbearer isn't popular.
4) This was an anti-incumbent wave, not an anti-Democratic one
What's the argument? Prior to the election, there were a series of polls showing that anti-incumbent sentiments were at their highest levels in recent history. "About two-thirds (68%) of registered voters said last month that they don't want to see most House members re-elected and about a third (35%) don't want to see their own representative returned to office," reported Pew. "In the 2006 and 2010 midterms, about half of voters said they wanted to see most members of Congress defeated." Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was still viewed more favorably by voters than the Republican Party:
So one narrative going into the election was that this wasn't about Democrats at all — voters just hated everyone. But since there were more Democrats up for reelection in the Senate, the anti-incumbent wave would end up hurting Democrats the most.
Why was it wrong? Because incumbents didn't lose. Democratic incumbents lost.
The House tells the tale. Going into the election, there were more Republicans in the House than Democrats by a 233-199 margin. So an anti-incumbent wave should have boosted Democrats. Instead, Republicans added to their already considerable margins. At this point, Republicans are up to 244 seats — and there are a number of races that haven't yet been called.
You can see it on the state level, too. As Reid Wilson writes at the Washington Post, "Before Election Day, the GOP controlled 59 of 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country. On Tuesday, preliminary results showed Republicans had won control of both the Nevada Assembly and Senate, the Minnesota House, the New Mexico House, the Maine House, the West Virginia House and the New Hampshire House. That would give the party control of 66 chambers, four more than their previous record in the modern era, set after special elections in 2011 and 2012." Again, that's not what you would expect from an anti-incumbent wave.
5) This means bipartisanship is back!
What's the argument? There are a lot of people in Washington who yearn for a return to bipartisan dealmaking and look hard for glimmers of hope in any political outcome, no matter how contrary. The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib, for instance, writes that "full GOP control of Congress might well shift Republicans' focus from stopping him to making things happen."
The basic idea is that Republicans, looking towards 2016 and finally holding the reins in the House and Senate, will decide they need to get right with younger, more diverse electorate that increasingly dominates presidential elections — and, in order to do that, they'll cut some of the deals they've been rejecting for the last few years. The result is that Obama will actually find it easier to compromise with a Republican Congress than a divided one.
There's another version of this argument being made, among others, by Mitch McConnell, which holds that the breakdown in bipartisanship in the Senate is mostly the fault of Harry Reid's management style, and McConnell will run such a clean, open process that comity will return on its own.
What's their interest in arguing it? It is pretty hard to get up every day and cover endless gridlock in Congress. A lot of political reporters and pundits are optimists and are looking for ways in which things might get better. The same goes for members of Congress: they don't much enjoy being hated by the country and having absolutely no serious accomplishments to their name, and they also like to imagine that change is just around the corner.
Why is it wrong? The core problem here is the House, not the Senate. As Jonathan Chait writes, "The legislative dynamics in Washington are very simple. Gridlock exists because Obama and House Republicans cannot agree on legislation. If Obama and the House could agree on legislation, their deal would be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate or by a Republican-controlled Senate. There are no plausible circumstances in which the Senate would block a deal struck between the House and Obama, because, whichever party controls the Senate, its ideological center will sit comfortably inside in the enormous space between Obama and the House Republicans."
So what's right?
It's easy to say elections are complicated and elegant explanations inevitably oversimplify. So what's the right narrative of the 2014 election?
The answer — to be a bad pundit for a moment — is I'm not really sure. And nor is anyone else. My guess is there is no one narrative that really works. We're in a period of extreme volatility in American politics. The 2012 election — where Democrats dominated at every level — was only two years ago. The Republican wave of the 2010 election was only two years before that. The massive Democratic gains in the 2008 election were only two years before that. And the massive Democratic gains in the 2006 midterm were only two years before that.
The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find.