What Happened On Election Day
Every two years we are told that this election is the most important election of our lives, and
every two years we go through the ritual of dissection and analysis as we have these past
several days, we declare one party finished and another reborn. But each time in all that
analysis without fail, we miss something big. This time really was different, because it was
perhaps the first election where we can comfortably say, given current political realities, it’s
hard to see how this could have played out much differently. Those who spent tens of millions
of dollars might have just as well spent $10 and it would have been the same.
One of the most discussed aspects of this year’s cycle was big money. I’m a staunch advocate
for comprehensive campaign finance reform, but this election brought another dimension of
the money in politics issue into focus. This year’s midterms were the most expensive ever at $4
billion, but just days before the Election on Halloween–a day of far less
consequence—Americans collectively spent $6.8 billion. With the federal budget clocking in at
$3.5 trillion this year, it’s not unreasonable to invest a large amount time and resources in a
national election. Perhaps an equally challenging problem is how poorly we spend that money.
In North Carolina, official campaigns and outside groups spent $100 million on the hotly
contested United States Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis. Despite all of that
investment, turnout in North Carolina increased just .9% from the last non-competitive Senate
race there in 2010.
And in the end, Hagan lost, Tillis won, and voters in North Carolina—many whom didn’t
vote—were subject to harassing robocalls, ads, and lawns signs and (perhaps even more
insidious) promises made without the voters consent on both sides to special interests groups.
What did the American people gain besides an election night scorecard?
This year as we do all election cycles, we squandered the opportunity to exercise campaigns as
valuable efforts in public engagement and to use the election cycle to try and bring as many
people into the process as possible, to connect with young and old, current and future voters.
We just chalked up winners and losers. Politics is the only industry where so much money is
expended with so little thought about how to put it to use. We can do better for $100 million
than a winner and a loser.
But it’s important to note, Democrats didn’t lose and Republicans didn’t win. The realities of
midterms (only twice since 1822 has a President’s party not had substantial losses in their sixth
year) and electorate demographics (which some models suggest could have Republicans
winning in midterm years and Democrats winning in presidential years for the next decade or
more) tell us more than the division of seats does.
After the gridlock we’ve seen for the past several years, candidates failed to make the case to
voters that anything would be particularly different in the next two. People are frustrated. They
want reform. Over the past decade we’ve had one of the most volatile periods of change of
power in Congress in our entire history, with at least one house of Congress switching in almost
every election since 2006. The mandate to end gridlock that supported will undoubtedly be
ignored, and gridlock will persist. This year produced the lowest voter turnout since 1942, when
a large portion of the voting population was fighting World War II.
Voting is vital. It should be made easier. And yes all Americans should vote. But that isn’t the
system we live in. In our current political reality, voters something to vote for, and more often
they want to vote for someone. Candidates need to reach out to them. Time and again political
scientists have concluded that of all things, the most effective thing for increasing voter turnout
is better candidates. Politicians and advocacy groups often try with limited success to convince
citizens to turn out by saying that every vote really counts, and that they could make the
difference. But great candidates can make people believe that if the candidate gets elected,
they could actually make things different, and that’s a cause that compels people to turn out.
Republicans were widely praised for not having any candidates who shot themselves in the
foot, but they certainly didn’t give us anything new and exciting. For the most part candidates
in this cycle were more of what we’ve always had in Congress: lots of lawyers and career
politicians. Of all the new senators, only one did not come from a political background.
We were encouraged by successes of Congressional candidates like Seth Moulton in
Massachusetts and Elise Stefanik in New York, who are ushering in a new generation of
leadership, and by Nick Troiano an Independent who ran in rural Pennsylvania. Nick Troiano
was the youngest candidate to run for Congress in the cycle, and he had unprecedented
success; he received 22,000 votes, endorsements from 21 mayors (Democrats, Republicans,
and Independents), won a higher percentage (13%) than any other independent Congressional
candidate in the nation this cycle in a three-way race and did better than any independent
candidate in the history of the district. Nick is a great example of the kind of candidate we hope
to recruit and run in 2016: a young, talented entrepreneur seeking to transform a broken
For the most part, across the country, voters faced disappointing candidate choices. In Iowa,
Republican Joni Ernst refused to accept the reality of climate change and Democrat Bruce
Braley displayed cluelessness about the newest generation of entrepreneurs and innovators by
chastising them as lazy. How can we expect masses of people to rush to the polling place to
exercise their right to vote when they are given a choice between throwing economic policy or
environmental policy out the window, and when both candidates are so uninspiring?
We need a more talented set of candidates, candidates who understand the realities of the 21st
century, who want to enter into true service to our country, and who represent America’s
future in every respect and professions. Without candidates like this in 2016, we can’t expect
turnout to truly surge. Without such turnout, we know that voters will be the most partisan
among us, leaving our voting base wildly out of step with the country.
This is why in the wake of 2014, Run for America’s work is ever more important and ever more
urgent. Without good people, we can’t possible hope for good campaigns or good government.
It’s that simple.