This Isn’t Your Father’s Midterm Election

In the past, the Democrats’ current poll numbers would spell doom, but no longer.

Turnout will be key.

By Peter FennSept. 16, 2014 | 4:15 p.m. EDT+ More—-USNEWS & WORLD REPORT, THOMAS JEFFERSON STREET BLOG

If this year’s midterm elections, with their current polling numbers, had been held 15, 20 or even 30 years ago, the Democrats would be toast. Any incumbent who was polling near 40 percent in a matchup – with a president whose job approval was also in the low 40s and where the mood of the country was abysmal – would be dead, done, stick a fork in ‘em. The election would be called for the Republicans and barely after Labor Day.

But times have changed. Turnout models have changed. The amount of money in politics has changed. Voters’ expectations for their office holders have changed. Campaign dynamics have changed.

In the past, if you were tied with your challenger in September, it was probably over. If you weren’t at 50 percent going into Election Day, it was doubtful you would get there.

[GALLERY: Cartoons on the 2014 Congressional Elections]

Now the situation is vastly different. There is no question Democrats are at a distinct disadvantage – having to protect seven vulnerable seats in states that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried – but consider the following: Republican negatives are as high or higher than Democrats’. There is no positive “change” message for the Republicans as there was in 1994 with the “Contract with America” slogan; there seems to be only a message of gridlock. Most of the current Senate races are not organized around a national movement as they were in 1980 but are individualized. Issues like Obamacare are in the rearview mirror.

Democrats still own issues like equal pay for equal work, birth control access, gay and lesbian rights, the minimum wage, college affordability and the middle-class squeeze. But there is a lot to play out in the next month and a half. Lots of ads, lots of money, lots of campaign time and, of course, lots of polls. And, in 2014, turnout will be key for these races. Can Democrats upend the traditional predictions of a Republican advantage in off-years?

If I were looking at the current poll numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, combined with the high “depression index” of many Americans now, I would declare a whole host of Democratic senators DOA in 2014. But that’s not how we assess these kinds of races any more, and the campaigns are still playing out with a fight to the finish. The old political rules have been altered, and the old-style campaigns no longer exist.

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a wild seven weeks.