Alternate Reality: Could the State of the Union Have Changed the 2014 Midterm Elections?

 /  Feb. 13, 2015, 1:18 p.m.


During President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, he outlined a series of liberal policies with an assertive and aggressive tone that has been absent in recent years. The president quipped that he has no more elections left in his presidency, almost goading the conservatives in the chamber to try to stop him. The ambitious State of the Union barely sounds like it came from the same president who kept largely silent in the months leading up to his party’s crushing defeat in the midterms, only to now  try to reform Washington with barely two years left in his term. This prompts the question: what might have come of the 2014 midterms if Obama’s State of the Union announcements had happened in July of 2014 rather than January 2015?

In July 2014, as the midterm election races were heating up, Congressional approval ratings were only 15 percent (the lowest in modern history), partisanship was at an all-time high, and the 113th Congress was on track to be the least productive in our country’s history. Democrats across the country were trying to distance themselves from the president, especially in the aftermath of GOP ads condemning Obama’s record and policies, which were also “on the ballot in November.” The most notable example of this was Alison Lundergan Grimes, who refused to admit if she voted for Obama during her bid to be a Kentucky senator. It’s clear that the Democrats were intimidated by the GOP ads, but instead of retreating, they might have been better served to stand their ground and back the policies that they had previously stood for.

Obama’s approval rating in July was 42 percent, which is only four points lower than it was at the time of the State of the Union. Despite the seemingly low public opinion at the time, the economic numbers tell a different, and more important story.

As of July 2014, gas prices had fallen almost one dollar below the 2008 average high of $4.11, the Dow Jones Industrial Average continued to break records, surpassing 17,000, the national unemployment rate was 6.2 percent, and the average hourly wage for employees in the private sector was $24.45.

Why, then, would Democrats distance themselves from a growing economy and a president that had allowed over seven million people the opportunity to provide themselves and their family with affordable healthcare? It would have reassured the American people that the candidates they voted for had enough confidence in the policies they enacted to stand up and defend them. After all, it was liberal economic stimulus that steered the economy back from the ledge during the 2008 financial crisis.

It is true that despite the improving economy, Americans were still anxious about their wages stagnating, but not for lack of effort by the Democrats. It was the Senate Republicans who blocked an April bill to raise the federal minimum wage. Additionally, minimum wage bills were passed in four states in 2014, all of which voted for Romney in 2012. Democrats should be capitalizing on the policies that voters want and distancing themselves from the partisanship that has blocked those measures from passing at the federal level.

Since the Democratic failure in the 2014 midterms, Obama has not been shy about his desires for the future. His executive order granted five million people the right to remain in America, he has ended the Afghan War and the Cuban Embargo, and has announced a plan to make community college free for all Americans.

Additionally, Obama focused on middle class economics in his address to Congress, a platform on which he originally ran in 2008 and 2012. He has largely been unable to implement his policies given the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Washington and the gridlock of Congress. However, this State of the Union made it clear to Americans that Obama will use his final two years to implement policies that aim to help the struggling middle class. His new budget will include provisions to allow for paid maternity and paternity leave, child care for working parents, and the modernization of America’s crumbling infrastructure.

With voter turnout in 2014 at the lowest level since World War II, it’s likely that had Obama made these announcements before the midterms, the outcome would have been different for the Democrats. For example, only 13 percent of voters in 2014 were in the under thirty age bracket, down from 19 percent in 2012. With twenty-one million Americans currently enrolled in higher education, Obama’s promise of free community college and greater student loan forgiveness could have easily driven more young voters to the polls.

Within the 30-44 age range, the percentage of voters was down to 22 percent, from 27 percent in 2012. Obama’s proposed policies on parental leave and child care could have influenced this group in the polls as well. The percentage of married couples with children where both parents work is 59.1 as of 2013; for this demographic, high-quality, affordable healthcare is a must.

The largest voting demographic is the age range of 45-64, which made up 43 percent of the vote in 2014. This group also made up 28 percent of the unemployed population in 2012. With the economy on the upswing, and Obama’s promise to make owning a home affordable and a comfortable retirement possible, this demographic could have been persuaded by these policies to vote democratic.

It is, at first, hard to imagine that the Democrats might have won in 2014 considering the landslide victory the Republican congressmen and governors enjoyed. However, a closer look at how Americans voted might suggest otherwise. New York Magazine published an especially telling tale of the liberal candidates who lost, but the liberal policies that were passed via statewide popular vote, regardless of their red or blue status. When given the choice of liberal or conservative candidate, Americans overwhelmingly chose conservative, but when given the option to implement liberal policies, Americans overwhelmingly agreed. If the Democrats, with the help of the president’s State of the Union in July, had run on policy instead of politics, the outcome of 2014 could have been entirely different.

Haley Schwab


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