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John Harris on political B.S.

In a delightful and all-too-rare admission, Politico editor-in-chief John F. Harris acknowledges something we all half-know and half-forget (especially in the aftermath of an election): That studying the entrails of the most recent election tells us relatively little about what will happen in future elections.

It’s possible to study some of the trends and tactics that enabled the party that won to win, and for political junkies this is fun and interesting. But instead of declaring that the latest results are the fulcrum on which all future results will turn, the punditocracy should (but seldom does) acknowledge that the losers will study what the winners did and try to turn it to their advantage next time and that on the day after Election Day, we know little about how the next election will turn out.

I hope that Harris will carry this wisdom into the next round.

Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/17/2014 - 11:19 am.

    As I said in a previous comment, the total vote difference for all 6 races in all 6 key Senate races was less than 600,000–with a winning difference of less than 1% of all the people who bothered to vote in the election.

    It’s still a toss-up out there, the 6 seat switch means nothing significant in terms of a change in the “the mood of the nation”.

    And it is still all about motivating people to get out to vote. And, de-motivating people from voting. Nothing like a scary ebola ad to spice things up.

    Don’t let the use of words like “tsunami” or “shellacking” fool you. The election was a minor tremble in the hovering between GOP and Dems that has been going on far too long. A really limited number of people bothered to vote.

    Does a record low turnout really mean that people are pissed at Obama? Just like on Yelp, it is usually the people with an axe to grind that write the reviews–so too the voters. Do the ideas that motivated the decisive 300,000 people who swung those seats for Republicans really reflect the remaining 200 million potential voters? A less than 1% twitch is all it was.

    It’s a really long stretch to see anything decisive about the vote.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/17/2014 - 12:39 pm.

      Whistle Away

      I don’t buy this argument. Yes, if you only look at the number that comprise the margin in an election, you’ll come up with a very small number. That’s especially true if you then divide your results by the elections that change party. But that isn’t an accurate reflection of what happened. The GOP picked up six senate seats which is a large (though not historical) amount. They also added to their House lead and now have their largest margin since the 20’s. At the same time they built up control of state legislatures to an historically large level. This wasn’t some miniscule result.
      But if you’re not convinced by actual election results, take a look at polling results. The Dem party is polling at its worst level in decades. The President has been underwater by 10-20% for months now. According to Gallup’s latest poll, Obamacare is unpopular 56-37%. By every non-election result that we have, Democratic ideas are being soundly rejected by a majority of the country.

      Having said that, you’re probably right and the Dem party should keep on, keepin’ on. No problems, nothing to learn. Smooth sailing ahead.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/17/2014 - 01:59 pm.

        Buy what you want.The

        Buy what you want.

        The numbers are the numbers.

        The crowd with pitchforks and torches ain’t that big.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/17/2014 - 02:14 pm.

        We’ve gone from

        the Democrats not having a large enough majority to actually pass legislation to
        the Republicans not having a large enough majority to pass legislation
        (assuming they can come up with some concrete proposals other than canceling Democratic legislation).
        Still a recipe for gridlock.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/17/2014 - 03:43 pm.

        Numbers game

        Yes, the GOP picked up a historic number of seats in Congress. At the same time, they were elected by a small percentage of the electorate (as is usual in midterm elections). Interestingly, the electors who showed up endorsed Democratic policies (higher minimum wage, gun control, abortion).

        As far as the polling results go, Republicans are polling worse than Democrats, and Congress polls worse than the President (Rasmussen had the approval of Congress at 8% in late October). Obamacare is unpopular, but the public does not want it repealed (improve, not repeal). Check the opinions on immigration, limiting greenhouse gases, higher taxes on the wealthy, increasing the minimum wage–the country may have voted Republican, but they aren’t thinking Republican.

        No, the results were not “minuscule.” The notion that the 2014 midterms represent some seismic shift to the right for the American electorate

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/17/2014 - 04:23 pm.

          Seismic Shift

          RB, I have never, not once, thought of the most recent election results as some kind of permanent move from the electorate. Right now the electorate has rejected the Democratic party in the same kind of way that the GOP was rejected in 2006. That might mean that the Dems remain rejected in 2016, but there are a lot of things that can happen between now and then. But something would have to happen to change the narrative. My guess, and that’s all that it is, is that the GOP should be slightly favored but I wouldn’t bet any amount of money on it. I’m absolutely NOT predicting some kind of generational move.

          I’d caution against reading the results of individual state initiatives into national policy. If the good people of Arkansas want a higher minimum wage, that is a very different thing than want a higher federal minimum wage. Same thing applies to other initiatives. In the same way, very blue Oregon voted in measures that are arguably opposed to immigration. I don’t know that this necessarily has any larger meaning for the country.
          Btw, Republicans are NOT polling worse than Democrats.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/17/2014 - 04:43 pm.

            State vs federal initiatives

            I don’t know if that’s a distinction most voters will make. I sincerely doubt most voters would disapprove of a higher federal minimum wage because they think it is a matter for state action only.

            I’ve seen the poll that shows the Republicans polling more favorably than Democrats, and I have seen more polls that say the opposite. When you factor in the general unpopularity of Republican positions, I would not conclude the Republicans have any particular advantage.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/17/2014 - 01:17 pm.

      “Shellacking” is what the President Called it.

      In politics, as in life in general, there is an old tradition of minimizing a loss, finding an excuse (not enough of my friends showed up), presenting an analysis that minimizes the margin of defeat, and even find a silver lining or new opportunity.

      It pretty much turned out like the polls predicted in the weeks running up to the election. There is nothing to indicate that the results would have been any different if turnout had been greater. Unless, of course, your math assumes that all of the no-shows would have backed your candidates.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/17/2014 - 02:57 pm.

        It’s a small tremor of the needle on the GOP/Democrat gauge.

        Well under 1% of turnout, in a year when the fulminating right had the most motivation of all to tun out.

        Making this into a major defeat that predicts the next presidential election is absurd.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/17/2014 - 01:19 pm.

    More of the same

    I remember the GOP using similar arguments after loosing “big time” in 2008 and 2012.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/17/2014 - 01:45 pm.

      Thanks for Reminding Me …

      … of another old tradition employed to minimize loss.

      Seeking comfort in the fact that your opponent has also experienced defeat, regardless of the passage of time or the margin of loss. I remember the time …

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/17/2014 - 03:15 pm.

    Studying entrails

    The problem in “studying entrails” is not about forecasting future elections by political junkies. It’s how the winners construe those interpretations in governing, or in the case of the GOP, not-governing.

    Was the election a mandate on Obamacare? That’s a fair interpretation. But is it a mandate for repeal of Obamacare and return to the status quo ante? Polls show that the public supports public financing of health care, including single payer, by wide margins. The public also supports stricter regulation of the financial and banking industries.

    Will the GOP use its majority to further those goals? I would never count on that. Word is that Mitch McConnell is already gearing up for return to some of the same deregulatory policies that brought us the 2008 meltdown. The GOP wins elections but once elected to power, could care less about governing or legislation that would protect or further the public interest. It looks to me that the GOP is only about using power to benefit cronies and getting revenge against its political foes.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/18/2014 - 08:10 am.


      “only about using power to benefit cronies and getting revenge against its political foes.” I can’t think of a more accurate summary of the past six years.

      It could be that the GOP will disappoint. In politics, that’s certainly the way to bet. However, the appeal of Hope and Change (remember that time period?) has crashed and burned.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/18/2014 - 10:13 am.

        So then what is it that has replaced it?

        Loot and pillage? I think not. About the only thing more time worn than Mr. Rose’s “loss explanation” theory, is the idea that any victory, no matter the size, indicates a mandate for the winning side, and a total repudation of the ideals of the losers. As always, voters will be thrilled with their decision, right up to the point the folks they voted in do something that they dislike. Unable to grasp that a vote for one faction or another doesn’t mean that all the wrongs they see in the world will not now immediately be righted, they will swing back the next time they have a chance to try to and get the unrealistic satisfaction they desire.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/18/2014 - 01:45 pm.

          Time Proven

          Truth only improves with age.

          No greater case study than what you descibed, Hope & Change.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/18/2014 - 03:39 pm.


          Every elected official has a mandate, even if they were narrowly elected. A smart one will keep an eye on what the constituents want so that reelection will be easier, of course. But they can rightfully claim a mandate on all of the issues they campaigned on. How else could it be?

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/18/2014 - 04:46 pm.


            voters often elect the lesser of evils, even when they disagree with many of their positions.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/20/2014 - 07:36 am.

              Lesser of Two Evils

              Fair point, but how is the politician supposed to act? Would you expect any elected official to sit down and say ‘well, I was only elected because the people were more scared of X, I guess I better not do the things that I campaigned on’. Of course not!

              Arguably this is where Obama is now in regards to immigration. He didn’t win in 2012 because a large majority of the American people wanted to regularize the status of people here illegally. Meanwhile, in the election just past, the pols that ran against were more likely to win. Polls are steadily against his proposed actions. And yet, he has power based on his position from the 2012 win.
              Does he have a mandate? Not by any conventional method of counting mandates, but he does have a large amount of power and he’s prepared to use it.

              • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/21/2014 - 10:03 pm.

                Simple Answer

                You work for (represent) all your constituents! If not you don’t believe in democracy
                Ever hear that quote “we the people in order to form a more perfect union”
                United we stand divided we fall, keep dividing, we surely will fall and the ashes of America will go to the victor party.

                • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/22/2014 - 01:20 pm.


                  If a candidate campaigns on a platform of X, Y, Z and they are elected, then they are representing their constituents by perusing X, Y and Z. Those are the positions they were elected to represent. I can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with that or not.

      • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/18/2014 - 12:14 pm.


        Obama has been a disappointment. He certainly has lost credibility as an agent of “hope and change.” But can you really blame just him when the GOP made “anti-hope and change” its main goal?

        And how can you compare his record over the past six years with George W. Bush’s over the previos eight?

        True, the IRS under Obama has investigated the tax -exempt status of right-wing groups to determine if they were misusing their tax-exempt status for political purposes. But this investigation was not limited to “right wing groups”; it was a general investigation of the misuse of tax-exempt status for political purposes. Is such an investigation really anything like asking the IRS specifically to investigate tax-exempt status of an actual church because of a sermon criticizing the President?

        Obama has nothing on the GOP for cronyism and revenge: Appointing an incompetent “Heck of a job Brownie” Brown to FEMA:Brown is a poster child for GOP cronyism. No-bid contracts awarded to Cheney’s Halliburton and KBR. The outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband’s exposure of the Niger yellow cake lie. Bush’s pardon of convicted perjurer “Scooter” Libby. The removal of US Attorneys who would not investigate phony “voter fraud” in their districts. Paulson’s bailout of Bear Stearns but allowing Lehman brothers to go bankrupt. The TARP bailout of the biggest GOP supporter banks. Unlawfully purging voter lists. Etc.

        One reason Obama has been a disappointment is because he allowed the multitude of war crimes and other malfeasances of the Bush administration go uninvestigated and unpunished. Some cronies (especially in the banking and financial services sectors) are bipartisan ones. But unlike Obama and the “left”, the GOP never forgets and it never forgives. The GOP will waste its next two years in power recriminating Obama’s past six years for the very type of “wrongs” that lost it power six years ago.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/18/2014 - 03:54 pm.

          Hope and Change?

          Yes, I can blame Obama for his failures! Even before the 2010 election he had presided over a pork filled stimulus and a series of questionable bailouts. How else would you describe the auto union maneuvers of 2009 than rewarding of cronies? Or how about the Dodd-Frank move to reward financial companies? Should that be blamed on Republicans?

          The IRS mainly targeted right wing groups. It looks like the IRS colluded with other agencies against groups like True the Vote, to bring more force to bear. It sidelined many groups from the 2012 elections. The IRS actions are the very definition of political corruption. If a GOP President did that to left wing groups, the entire left would (rightfully!) be angered. But it’s against their foes, so ‘yawn’. Frankly, it’s much worse than the investigation of one church. And yes, that investigation is bad too.
          The cronyism in the Obama administration has been at least as bad as it was under W Bush. Check out how much FEMA money got to the Hurricane Sandy victims. Check out the number of lobbyists now working in the White House. The last is especially bad since Obama said that wouldn’t happen.

          I’m not sure what the GOP will do over the next couple of years. The Obama response to any lapse in government has been to shrug and change the subject. If the GOP can discover why the IRS keeps having hard drives fail, that would be a good thing. If they can force the VA to reform, that would be a good thing. If they can keep the Justice department from snooping on journalists (much worse than Valerie Plame!), that would be a good thing. Etc, etc and sadly, etc.
          We’ve suffered from bad government for some time now and yes, it’s been bipartisan. This idea that because things were bad under W Bush, then Obama should get a pass is ridiculous. He’s been an awful President and deserves the criticism.

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 11/18/2014 - 04:38 pm.

            “How else would you describe the auto union maneuvers of 2009 than rewarding of cronies?”
            – I’d call that saving the American Automotive Industry. You are talking about the GM bailout?

            “The IRS mainly targeted right wing groups.”
            -Yet the only group that lost it’s tax-exempt status was a liberal group.

            “If they can keep the Justice department from snooping on journalists (much worse than Valerie Plame!)…”
            -suppression of freedom of the press is a bad thing in any administration. It happened plenty under Bush, and the ‘snooping on journalists’ thing expanded vastly under Bush. I’m not saying Obama is blameless here, but comparing this to outing an active American secret agent, thus compromising all her contacts, is pretty &*% bad, and qualifies as treason, IMO. I think this is a bad comparison for you to be making.

            “I’m not sure what the GOP will do over the next couple of years.”
            – I am. Something about sound and fury, signifying… what was that again?

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/20/2014 - 07:49 am.

              Protecting Cronies

              The GM bailout gave money specifically to the union, jumping them ahead of the creditors that were actually due. This was a blatant favor given out to a political ally. And if we’re going to credit Obama for saving the auto industry, then we should probably give Bush that same credit for saving the financial industry. (Note, I’m not a big fan of either of those arguments but fair is fair.)
              Yes, the IRS mainly targeted right wing groups. Even though they didn’t lose status, they lost time and the ability to do the work they were created to do. They shared confidential donor info with left wing groups. It looks like they colluded with other government agencies to put pressure on them. And then they went and transparently destroyed evidence to try to kill any real investigation. What they have done is horrible.
              Yes, I think that the actions of the Justice department against journalists is much, much worse than Scooter Libby, one of Colin Powell’s people, blowing Plame’s cover. Note, that didn’t come from the White House. On the other hand, the Holder department attitude towards journalists is horrifying. Obama should have stepped in and told him to knock it off.
              Or is he OK with it?

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/20/2014 - 09:06 am.

                Targeting right wing groups

                How is making sure that a group qualifies for a tax-exemption “targeting” them? It seems to me that a group that wants the exemption should be required to prove that they qualify.

                A group formed to defeat the President will have a hard time making the case that tehy are entitled to be exempt.

                • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/20/2014 - 03:03 pm.


                  RB, this is only true if the targeting is value neutral. Right wing groups were singled out for special treatment. That meant extra intrusive questions, which were NOT asked of left-wing groups. It meant requiring donor lists, again only asked of right wing groups. It meant that some right wing groups had their status put on hold for long periods of time, effectively stopping them. Without a clear ruling from the IRS, they couldn’t tell donors how their donations would be used.

                  “A group formed to defeat the President will have a hard time making the case that tehy are entitled to be exempt.” You’d think so, but it only matters WHICH President. Groups like Media Matters still enjoy non-partisan status for tax purposes though they’re obviously working to defeat Republicans.

                  • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/20/2014 - 03:44 pm.


                    Right wing groups were singled out for special treatment because their names and rhetoric made it sound as if they were engaging in electoral politics or advocacy. Donor lists were scrutinized for close ties to candidates for office.

                    “Groups like Media Matters [are] obviously working to defeat Republicans.” Because exposing bias and inaccuracy in media obviously works to the disadvantage of Republicans.

                    • Submitted by jason myron on 11/20/2014 - 04:00 pm.


                      If I have a license plate that reads ” I hate cops” I should also have a reasonable expectation of more scrutiny from law enforcement.

                    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/22/2014 - 01:39 pm.

                      Media Matters

                      Not sure how to respond to this. It’s a bit shocking to hear the suggestion that Media Matters is honestly simply about bias and inaccuracy. I can only shake my head at the idea that they are somehow non-partisan while a group that is concentrating on, say, reading the Constitution is blatantly political and deserves extra scrutiny.

                      This is one more example of why Conservatives fear attempts at changing the laws regarding campaign finance reform. People on the left see speech from the right as something dangerous that must be smothered. Why would anyone non-left put their rights under the control of such people?

              • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/21/2014 - 10:11 pm.

                Get Real

                Every year corporations in America/Millionaires/billionaires get Billions perhaps trillions in tax breaks, subsidies and special compensation. “choosing ” good guys and bad guys with a Red Hat=good guy, Blue Hat=bad guy mentality, and calling it fair and logical is ludicrous! Just because a favoritism (corruption) for some, has been written into the law does not make it right.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/18/2014 - 04:50 pm.


            The IRS actually investigated more left wing than right wing organizations.
            The Rights got more publicity because they had been particularly blatant in claiming (for tax purposes) to be educational groups while devoting most of their money to political campaigning.

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