Campaign books are a strange genre of American nonfiction, heavily influenced by a few models from the relatively recent past. There is most obviously the Making of the President series by Theodore White, covering the presidential elections from 1960 through 1972 (a final volume discussed the 1980 elections in the context of a revised take on the previous quarter-century). These books were self-consciously "official" in tone and relied heavily on authorized reporting of the major contenders, with most of the analysis focused on the winning campaign (as the titles suggested). Then there is the deliberately iconoclastic counter-model of "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, which abandoned objectivity and every other rule of conventional political reporting in the pursuit of "deeper truths" about American politics and government and an impressionistic presentation of the frenetic pace and sheer hellishness of a national campaign. A number of insider-outsider hybrid books have since occasionally appeared, the best received of which was Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, an account of the 1988 presidential campaign that owed a lot of its perspective to the fact that it was not published until 1992. The most recent exemplar in the field was probably Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heillmann's book on the 2008 campaign that wrung a made-for-TV movie out of its sensationalistic scoops and its focus on a single factor (the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running-mate) in a complicated election.
You will note that none of these books was about a midterm election, probably because midterm elections (with the possible exception of the 1994 contest, with its semimythical "Contract With America" and Newt Gingrich as a protagonist) typically lack the dominant personalities and clean story-lines of presidential cycles. No, midterms have been largely left to the political scientists to dissect, beyond the rear-view-mirror accounts prepared as background to the next batch of presidential campaign histories. This book seeks to break that mold by treating a midterm election as a unique event worth understanding.
While not strictly speaking a work of political science, this book does aim at providing a clear understanding of the dynamics of the 2014 elections that transcends (while often drawing upon) the episodic reporting and analysis of political journalists—and without the benefit of later hindsight. My own hybrid experience as a "news-cycle" blogger for Washington Monthly (writing twelve posts a day), a weekly columnist for Talking Points Memo, and the managing editor of an online forum focused on political strategy, placed me in a position to think and write critically about the media coverage that shaped perceptions of the "midterms" even as they were unfolding. In that spirit, this book challenges questionable elements of the conventional wisdom about the 2014 elections before it completely congeals.
I believe the trajectory and outcome of the 2014 midterms were relatively predictable and almost entirely explainable by a set of "fundamental" factors—including the electoral landscape, midterm turnout patterns, the president's approval ratings, sour perceptions of the economy and of politics, and some external news "accidents"—that all favored Republican candidates. It was in the continuing interest of both political journalists and partisan operatives, however, to give these "fundamentals" at most lip service while crafting dramatic narratives that credited the players in the electoral "game" with a lot more control over events than were justified, and endowed the elections themselves with more significance in signaling the future direction of American politics than we have good reason to assume. On the margins, of course, all sorts of factors, including dubious media narratives, affect electoral outcomes, so they, too, are part of our story.
I have sought in these pages to suspend my own political and ideological allegiances and dispassionately analyze what happened and why, and apologize for any failures in achieving that posture. This was not, on balance, a particularly entertaining election cycle, and the daily grind of watching myriad candidates from each party hammer away monotonously on the same handful of cookie-cutter themes was not always an edifying experience. I hope to spare readers the tedium of following this election cycle and instead pare it down to its essential features, results, and implications. Those are interesting enough, without the embellishments of imaginative journalists and ambitious spinners.
We obviously do not know at this point how history will regard the 2014 elections. As was the case after the 2010 elections, Republicans hope they have achieved a breakthrough that makes the presidency of Barack Obama a Waterloo for liberalism. Democrats just as naturally view this election as a cyclical setback at odds with their party's long-term advantages; some blame the president for the 2014 results and look forward to a post-Obama era. In this era of the "permanent campaign" we have already entered the 2016 campaign cycle. And each party's understanding—and misunderstanding—of what just happened may influence the next chapter of American political history.