The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans will vote for Republicans even though they disagree with them on everything

Why today’s election says little about Obama or what voters truly want

Don't look for many clues about voter opinions in today's election. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
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With Republicans on the cusp of seizing control of the Senate, the next few days are likely to be filled with one of recriminations for the White House -- what went wrong, how voters have fallen out of favor with President Obama, how Americans newly trust the GOP to lead the country.

And there will be some truth to that: Obama’s job approval numbers are way low and, on many issues, voters do say they trust Republicans more than Democrats.

But voters are a confused lot. Yes, they have fallen out with Obama, but on the biggest issues facing Congress, they still agree with Democrats on ... almost everything. That includes issues like raising the minimum wage, making the rich pay more in taxes, letting illegal immigrants stay in the United States, taking action to stem global warming, legalizingsame sex marriage and fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it.

It’s even crazier than that, though. Republicans in Congress get lower approval ratings than Democrats in Congress, even as Americans are planning to send more Republicans to Congress.

So what’s going on? Well, it's well widely known that voters almost always vote against the incumbent president in the mid-term election year.

There have been only three exceptions in the past 80 years: 1934, 1998 and 2002. Political scientists have a variety of explanations for the phenomenon, but it’s important to remember Obama is not suffering a specific repudiation; he’s suffering from the natural laws of politics.

The Senate map was especially bad for Democrats this year, with several retirements in red states. The demographics of the 2014 mid-terms are also bad, with key Democratic constituencies -- such as minorities and the young -- more likely to sit out.

That flips in 2016, when the map and the presidential election may be more favorable to Democrats. It's the tidal flows of politics, not much more.

So, no, voters aren’t registering any specific policy preference with their votes today. Rather, specific candidates might win in specific states because of structural factors that affect every mid-term election and random facts of this year.

Republicans will certainly draw a different lesson, seizing on their victories as evidence that voters back their views on major issues.

As polling shows, this is not the case. But voters seldom influence what Congress actually does, as this chart from political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page shows.

You'll see there's a roughly 1 in 3 chance that Congress will take a particular action, regardless of whether a large majority or a tiny majority of Americans supports that action. It's economic elites and interest groups that make the difference, Gilens and Page find.