What Did — and Didn’t — Surprise Me This Cycle

by Stuart Rothenberg November 29, 2014 · 8:30 AM EST

Every election cycle is filled with twists and turns, upsets and surprises. And every cycle is filled with goofy arguments, warnings about things that never happen and unsurprising outcomes that surprise only the politically uneducated.

For me, the biggest surprises included Dave Brat’s primary upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Thad Cochran’s win in the Mississippi Republican Senate runoff and Larry Hogan Jr.’s victory and margin in Maryland’s gubernatorial race.

Primary upsets happen, in part because reliable polling is so scarce. Without it, local observers have to rely on anecdotal evidence, which often is unreliable. But the idea that some underfunded college professor might deny renomination to Cantor, whatever his flaws and vulnerabilities, struck me as somewhere between silly and delusional.

Apparently, I was the one who was delusional.

When I saw Chris McDaniel lead Cochran in the Mississippi GOP primary but fall just short of an out-right victory, I immediately assumed Cochran would be toast in the runoff. McDaniel’s supporters would be energized, Cochran’s would be disappointed and the runoff electorate would likely benefit the insurgent.

Yes, I had heard the talk that some Mississippi Republicans didn’t bother to vote because they didn’t believe the senator was in trouble and that Cochran’s supporters were encouraging African-Americans to turn out for him in the runoff. But I was skeptical McDaniel could be stopped.

Cochran squeezing by McDaniel in the runoff proved not every rule of thumb applies in every situation.

Hogan’s victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was doubly stunning, since I live in Maryland. Yes, I was aware of GOP polling a week before the election that showed the race even. And yes, when I went to my Montgomery County polling place mid-morning on Election Day, I was the only voter in the room, which raised questions about statewide turnout.

And it’s not like Republicans can’t ever win in Maryland. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican, was elected governor in 2002. But he had served in Congress and was a proven campaigner. Hogan’s great claim to fame was that his father was in Congress (and as a member of the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon).

But I fell in the trap of believing no Republican could get elected statewide in Maryland these days, given the growing power of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in state elections. And I let that assumption paralyze the analytic side of my brain.

If those outcomes proved the limits of my intellect, there are a couple of early calls about which I’m particularly proud.

I never rated Mitch McConnell as anything close to Tossup in his race against Alison Lundergan Grimes, and I never believed 2014 would be an “anti-incumbent election.”

It would have been so easy to throw McConnell into the Tossup category any number of times throughout the cycle. After all, he trailed Grimes after the primary and continued to have high personal negatives throughout much of the year.

But I always thought Kentucky’s hostility toward President Barack Obama would allow McConnell to eventually open up a lead. No, I didn’t expect him to win as easily as he did, but the Rothenberg Political Report ratings got the Kentucky Senate outcome right — from the start of the campaign to the end.

One of the problems I have with some statistical geeks is that they don’t look very far beyond the latest polls. But I was quite confident throughout the cycle the early Kentucky polls would not be predictive.

At the Rothenberg Political Report, we don’t rate races by looking at the latest poll. We start with the fundamentals and ride with them as long and as far as seems reasonable. Only if our scenarios aren’t playing out do we change ratings. And that’s why we have so few changes until the final couple of months of an election cycle.

Finally, I have written so many “we don’t have anti-incumbent elections in this country” columns (such as here and here) that even I am getting tired of the subject. But this didn’t stop people who should know better — and those television producers who know surprisingly little about politics — from continuing to predict we would see an anti-incumbent election in November.

Congress’s low job approval numbers never created the possibility of an anti-incumbent election. Anyone who believed that simply doesn’t understand politics.

Midterms can be status-quo elections if voters are content, or anti-president elections if the person in the White House is unpopular. But they rarely, if ever, are broad rejections of both parties. At least, they haven’t been so far.

This, of course, won’t stop somebody who knows nothing about politics from predicting an anti-incumbent election in 2016.