With all due respect, I don’t think this has been an election about nothing. Instead of a nationalized midterm election, we’ve had many elections about many issues. High levels of polarization were with us in 2006 and 2010 and those elections were deemed to be about issues because of foreign policy failure (Iraq) and massive partisan policy change (Obamacare) and the continued national effects of the housing crash. Polarization is not the reason nothing big happened to nationalize around and create a feeling of a single election.
During a midterm, it’s hard to appreciate that the relative calm on the surface probably hides ripples below. Our media coverage is built for the big national campaigns for the presidency. Not having big national themes makes them confused. Pundits are too lazy (and/or political reporters are too thinned out) to dive into the state and local races. Why bother when the polls show their aren’t many of those anyways? And of course, lack of competition doesn’t imply a lack of issues.
But even someone wanting to dig into sub-national politics has it rough. By many accounts campaigning has been shifting from broadcast and into personalized mailings, phone calls, GOTV-oriented door knocking, and targeted internet advertising. For instance just today, Derek Willis reports:
Spending on digital platforms like Facebook is now normal; nearly 500 federal candidates and committees reported direct payments to the social media company this cycle, and the national party committees paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on it. But other, smaller services that have sizable audiences are attracting attention, and money, from political campaigns.
Social media advertising and other targeted campaign techniques are all hard for pundits and researchers to see and almost certainly less likely to generate the appearance of big issue debates even if they are going on.
Also the Republicans found some self-respect (or common sense) and clammed-up about Obamacare and Benghazi and whatever else. But that seems like it has only happened in the last couple months. Clearly the GOP of June was trying to tackle policy issues the “Seinfeld view” would assure us have been settled. I’d agree that the Democrats don’t seem to have galvanized around a positive agenda but why should they when…
On the supply-side, it seems like a campaign season based on a realization that no result will move the needle very much. Divided government (particularly in the age of the filibuster) with a “Republican Senate” just isn’t that appealing to at least some or many activists. Better to keep the powder dry for 2016 when things will really matter and some of the advantages of the last redistricting are starting to wane. That’s ambition keeping issues down, not polarization.
Theoretically, I don’t think the authors have made a case that polarization nationally (and dimensional collapse) implies that Riker’s heresthetics are dead. Quite pointedly, Riker would probably argue the opposite should be happening. Which again makes me think the ambitious are waiting for 2016. That doesn’t explain the behavior going on in say the individual senate and gubernatorial races, but it could easily be the case that whatever is going on in the 8-10 interesting ones does in fact look like heresthetics and not merely turnout games.
With respect to Wisconsin I’d never call Walker/Burke a campaign about nothing and I doubt anyone in Wisconsin would either. It would belittle Walker’s tangible accomplishments at changing the status quo to do so. It’s a fair point to say this election might not be about new issues though. And that’s what the media wants (new new new), but it’s not clear the electorate needs to be fed something novel every two years. But since the Walker/Burke contest is about old issues, I’ve seen more national coverage about the Walker/Ryan ambition dynamic than the ideological struggle going on inside the state. And again, covering presidential politics is more fun for the national media or a pundit than picking through each states’ political debates to find all of the different campaigns about issues.