Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this year’s Senate race, the most expensive in history. There was battleground mania as America’s oligarchs cut huge checks to fight their battles through political proxies. Ads about castrating pigs, air disasters, and cannon fire traveled the airwaves, all trying to convince people to do their democratic duty (for their preferred candidate, of course). And the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs lived to fight another day. That was the midterm that was.

And so we enter the Predictable Post-election Pontification Period (PPPP). The conservative PR industry spins the results as a commentary on Harry Reid’s leadership of the Senate, the need for the Keystone pipeline, and for more limited government. Democratic commentators look to the failings of individual candidates: too dull, too gaffe-prone, too uninspiring.

But these “experts” tend to push the lines that make the best news for their party, all while furthering their own consulting interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re often uninformed. Indeed, a whole research agenda in political science is founded on the idea that many so-called political experts are really not very expert at all. The New Yorker’s review of a new book by Phillip Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the book speaks for many of us who already knew that the talking heads on TV were no more informed than we were:

When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake.

For example, the same people who denied that Obama had a mandate in 2012 now insist that the GOP has one on much lower turnout in 2014. The Democrats who helped abolish the filibuster are now likely to turn into its most vociferous defenders. Up will be down, left will be right. Such is the business of political punditry.

Reduce? Not so much.

Reuse, recycle? Of course.

Voters generally don’t care about the same things that political obsessives do. That might be why political campaigns seem so tone-deaf to many. As John Jost of NYU, one of the leading scholars on political psychology and ideology, tells us, people who are deeply interested in politics are likely to filter new information through an ideological lens. This ideological filtering leads to what sociologists call “cognitive dissonance,” a phrase coined by a group of sociologists who studied a cult. Like something out of The X-Files, the cult members were convinced that aliens were plotting to destroy the earth. When the time arrived for the aliens’ appearance and, shockingly, none appeared, one of the cult’s members insisted that the group’s clock must be fast. When they at last accepted that the aliens hadn’t come, the group convinced itself that their own preparedness had somehow warded off the End of Days. They issued a press release claiming credit for saving the world.

Likewise, elections don’t have consequences; they have told-you-sos. Environmentalists blame the Democrats for not talking enough about climate change. Obamaphiles say that other candidates should have stuck closer to the President. And consultants everywhere say “if only they had listened to me!” For liberals, the candidates were not liberal enough. For conservatives, well, the losing candidates should have been more conservative. None of them admit defeat. None of them even bother to make an argument. They just repeat what they were saying long before the results came in.

It’s a familiar story. In 1972, after George McGovern was shellacked by President Nixon, Pauline Kael, then a critic for The New Yorker, said “but I didn’t meet anyone who was voting Nixon!” (though this is perhaps a slight misquote). And famously, The Chicago Tribune was so sure of the result in 1948 that it ran the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Improvements in quantitative political science have helped prevent these sorts of embarrassments. Recently, for example, Nate Silver used Bayseian models to derive election predictions by incorporating more and more polling data over time. As the election gets closer and there are more and more polls, the model is meant to become more and more accurate. Thus, although some individual polls suggested that the Democrats were outperforming the fundamentals of a bad economy, the models suggested moderate Democratic losses. And the results this year bore an uncanny resemblance to what the fundamentals of a bad economy would have predicted. The question is: Why did the Democrats seem to have the ability to defy gravity, only to come hurtling back down to Earth?

Political scientists know that, at least in midterms, voters tend to choose the party that agrees with them on their top issue. So, in this midterm, voters chose the party that agreed with them on jobs, of course, and their abject frustration with Washington. These issues topped the list especially for swing voters. And states with particularly poorly performing schools cared about them a great deal, too.

As Robert Reich, former United States Secretary of Labor, rightly points out, last term’s Democratic “accomplishments” didn’t tend to inspire voters who were living paycheck to paycheck. Our country’s median income is still dropping. So, Republican challengers simply had to convince families struggling in the worst economy in decades that they understood the bills and heartache that faced people at the end of every month better than the incumbent politicians. And with Congress having lower approval ratings than Star Wars’ Jar-Jar Binks, this wasn’t the year to be an incumbent.

Republicans also had the easy job of connecting their opponents to a President with drooping approval ratings. And while the President’s power over the economy is arguably quite limited, the public certainly connects the person in the Oval Office with how the economy is treating them. With these factors working in their favor, perhaps the question should be: Why didn’t the GOP do even better?

Political scientists have observed that, even when the President’s approval ratings are dire and the incumbents are not well liked, undecided voters do not always break towards the challenger. But this time, they mostly did. When the Democrats failed to make the case that their platform would mean a change from the economic status quo, and they failed to make the case that they stood with the voters against Washington politics, they lost the election. Obama won in 2012 largely because he convinced voters that he understood people’s economic concerns better than Bain-branded plutocrat Mitt Romney. Democrats failed to draw that same contrast with their opponents in the midterms this time around.

For instance, Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado became Mark “Uterus” as he focused his campaign on trying to disqualify his opponent on women’s issues. He concentrated on these issues to the exclusion of all others. He even earned a stern rebuke from The Denver Post for running such a negative campaign on such a limited platform.

Progressives tend to do better when they paint a picture of a better tomorrow. For them, trying to disqualify their opponents simply doesn’t get it done. When Democratic incumbents spend their time emphasizing their middle-class, populist credentials, they go from being “at-risk” to being comfortable victors, especially when their GOP opponents make mistakes—like trying to switch positions on social issues or pushing abstract issues like government spending that are of little interest to non-politicos.

In addition, history tells us that the President’s party tends to lose midterm elections in his second term. The party tends to be associated with the President’s mistakes and shortcomings. Any candidate running with this weight around his or her ankles has to jettison the baggage of association with the President by generating a local, independent brand. The same is true when a new President from the same party tries to win the White House for a third time in a row.

All of this suggests that the Democrats should be worried about 2016. Hillary Clinton has admitted that she hasn’t driven her own car for 18 years. Her comment that she was leaving the White House broke made many feel that she was insensitive to their hardships. And her pal-ing around with the One Percent might help explain why her attempts at economic populism often sound so hollow. Her slogan may as well be “Let Them Eat Cake” at this point.

The pundits are eager to declare Hillary the inevitable Democratic nominee—just as they did early in the 2008 Presidential cycle. This should not blind us to the fact that Elizabeth Warren or former Senator Jim Webb are much better placed to appeal to primary voters and to “persuadable voters” in the general election. They’re stronger on jobs and opposition to Washington politics.

Conventional wisdom has it that you run to the base in a primary election and pivot back to the center for the general. But when voters face radically bad economic times, they don’t necessarily want reassuring centrism. They want someone who understands their anger at the status quo, and they don’t want anyone they see as more of the same. When you add in that Webb opposed the Iraq war (unlike Clinton) and that Warren has been leading the fight against Big Money—and especially Wall Street money—in Congress, Clinton seems vulnerable on both fronts. Both Webb and Warren offer voices for blue-collar economics, and their less interventionist stances on foreign policy hardly seem like handicaps given recent events. With a media that loves a horse race, there’s room for more than one in the current Democratic stable.

Flunking the midterms should serve as a wake-up call. The Democrats need a message on middle-class economics and changing Washington that shows voters can move on from the Obama era with a new set of ideas. And the Democratic nominee needs to build a campaign machine to communicate that message over and over to the electorate. The Democrats need a candidate who can make a middle-class economic populist message credible. The problem? Hillary the Inevitable might also be Hillary the Unelectable. The solution? Jim Webb or Elizabeth Warren.


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