The results were clear: a strong majority of Americans (six out of ten) wanted Congress to approve a budget agreement to avoid a government shutdown, which they also agreed would be bad for the country, according to a CNN/ORC International Poll released on Monday, September 30, 2013. Yet, mere hours later, that exact thing happened. Paralyzed by debate over funding for the controversial Affordable Care Act, members of Congress could not make a deal, closing the government for sixteen days. That same poll, which was conducted over the weekend preceding the shutdown, showed that 46% of Americans would blame congressional Republicans in the event of a shutdown, while 36% would point their fingers at President Obama.
While the shutdown certainly hurt the country’s credibility, it ended up not damaging the GOP in the eyes of many voters. Only a little over one year after the Federal government was forced to shut its doors for ten days, Republicans handed Democrats one of the biggest electoral defeats in recent history in the 2014 midterm elections. They regained control of the Senate, and continued to expand their huge majority in the House of Representatives.
How did this happen? Looking at this election through the lens of messaging and communication, a couple of things start to make sense. Exit poll after exit poll showed that the top issue on voters’ minds was not what you might think. It wasn’t avoiding another shutdown, defeating ISIS abroad, or even health care. Echoing 1992, voters were most concerned about “the economy, stupid.” Certainly, the economy has been slow to recover since the shock of the 2008 financial crash. But at the same time, it’s been doing just that—recovering. By November of 2014, GDP, household finances, and consumer spending had been steadily trending upwards, while unemployment reached its lowest point since mid-2008. The President chalked these gains up to his Democratic policies, going so far as to claim that “these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.” Voters had a difference of opinion…kind of.
Here’s what I mean: as Republicans stole Senate seats from incumbent Democrats in Alaska and Arkansas, and took open ones in Nebraska and South Dakota, voters in those four states approved ballot measures to increase the minimum wage, a key part of President Obama and Democrats’ economic message. Written plainly on a separate section of the ballot, this policy appealed to a wide range of people. But when it was tied to the Democratic Party or the President’s brand, it had little effect.
Lastly, the issue of voter turnout stung the Democrats. Turnout in the 2014 midterms was the lowest for a midterm election in 72 years, and among key Democratic demographics like minorities, millennials, and unmarried women, it was down across the board. The electorate that carried Republicans to victory was largely white, middle-aged to older (45-64), and 77 percent moderate (40%) or conservative (37%), according to exit polls.
Between voter turnout and the party’s losses, despite the standalone success of its policies, Democrats were not able to put out a coherent, appealing message and make it stick in 2014. Meanwhile, Republicans rallied around their message on the economy and rode it to victory. Delivering the right message, to the right audience, at the right time is the cornerstone of communication because it yields potent results. This fact won’t change in 2016, and as the stage begins to set for a new presidential showdown, it will be exciting to see who takes 2014’s lesson in communication to heart.