The dramatic, across-the-board victory engineered by Republicans in Tuesday's elections would seem to bode well for the party's chance to capture the White House in 2016. The GOP took full control of Congress, flipped at least four governor's offices from blue to red, and prompted much talk of a resurgent Republican movement.
Not so fast. A more careful look at the returns significantly complicates the narrative that an American electorate, which recently tilted Democratic, has since shifted back to the Republican fold.
In fact, the 2014 election results appear to say more about who did not vote than who did: Younger voters and minority communities stayed home in large numbers, as is typical during a midterm election. If trends from the last two presidential elections hold, those same groups are likely to be far more energized during the next White House campaign, making Tuesday's results of limited value in predicting 2016.
If anything, data from the midterms reveal that Republicans could face a steeper climb than usual in two years. Exit polls showed that Republicans actually got a smaller percentage of the female vote than they did in the 2010 midterms, even as many of their highest profile candidates tried to moderate their image on issues like abortion and contraception.
If that trend continues, the GOP could find itself more reliant than ever on white males, the one slice of the American electorate on which the GOP has a lock. But that won't be enough to win national elections with the country growing markedly less white. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, the United States is on track to become a majority-minority population in the next three decades, and people of color consistently vote more Democratic than Republican.
Republicans can try to counteract Democrats' built-in demographic advantage by influencing turnout. This, Democrats argue, is the real point of the restrictive voter identification laws that Republicans have turned to as a fix for supposed voter fraud. It is about depressing minority participation at the polls. That seems less like a sustainable long-term strategy and more like an act of desperation.
Of course, Democrats have their own problems with midterm elections -- namely, turnout. In 2010, the share of the electorate comprised of non-white voters dropped by 3 percentage points from the 2008 election, and the share of 18-29 year olds dropped by 6 percentage points. In that midterm election, those groups still voted Democratic, but by smaller margins.
As it happens, the 2010 midterm elections look strikingly similar to the 2014 results.
Exit polls from House of Representatives races in 2010 showed a national electorate made up of 35 percent self-identified Democrats, 35 percent Republicans and 29 percent independents. Exit polls from Tuesday's election showed a nearly identical breakdown. Those same polls showed the parties maintaining roughly the same level of loyalty among their own voters as in 2012. The only major difference is that Democrats in 2014 actually improved their performance by 5 percentage points among independent voters.
But again, the midterm losses from 2010 didn't mean disaster for the party in the presidential election. Instead, 2012 brought back young and minority voters in large numbers, giving Obama his second term. The same will likely prove true, unless the GOP goes through a very rapid transformation.
To be sure, if Republicans are looking for a positive political message to take away from this midterm (beyond gaining more lawmaking power), it is that the GOP can probably look ahead happily to 2018. Midterms are their meat: They play to their strengths and lessen the impact of their demographic weaknesses. But they shouldn't get overly excited about 2016 -- at least not until they come up with new a strategy and policy platform.