There's no way for liberals to sugarcoat this election, but as I've been looking over the results, it strikes me that with a few important exceptions, it's only shocking because of what we've been expecting in the last weeks and months, not because of what we should have expected all along. In other words, the polls, reading as they did and not only the eternally fickle electorate but probably lots of people who never managed to cast a ballot, gave us a false sense of how things might go.
Let me give you a couple of examples to show what I mean. Few people thought that Mark Pryor in Arkansas was going to win, but they didn't think he was going to lose by 17 points. The same is true of Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky—she was a long shot, but I thought she'd lose by 5 points or so; in the end she lost by 16. Yet if you knew nothing about the particular candidates or particular races, you'd say that of course Democrats in Arkansas and Kentucky were going to lose big. Those are Republican states. Barack Obama lost the former in 2012 by 24 points, and the latter by 23 points.
Naturally, as I was thinking about this I said to myself, "Let's make a chart." So here it is, a comparison of the margins in Senate races last night with the results in those states in 2012. I'll explain how to interpret it after you take a look:
The vertical axis is last night's results, and the horizontal axis is the 2012 result. Each figure is the Democratic total minus the Republican total, so positive numbers mean Democratic wins and negative numbers mean Republican wins. If a state falls right on the diagonal line, it means that the state produced exactly the same result as in 2012. And there were a number of states that did, or came very close. Mitt Romney won Georgia by 8 points, and last night David Perdue beat Michelle Nunn there by 8 points. Barack Obama won Hawaii by 43 points, and Brian Schatz won yesterday by 42 points.
If a state falls above the diagonal line, it means the 2014 Senate race swung more toward the Democrat, and below the line means it swung more toward the Republican. The only dramatic outlier is Maine, which Obama won by 15 and Susan Collins won yesterday by 36, which means she outperformed the expected Republican result in her state by 51 points.
Looking at all the races yesterday (and note that I'm excluding Alabama, where Jeff Sessions ran unopposed), what we see is that the median race wound up 2.2 percent more Republican than you would have expected if you were going off nothing but the 2012 presidential results.
You can look at that and say that 2.2 percent is a pretty small number, one not exactly suggesting some enormous change in the public's choices. Which would be fair. But it was enough to allow Republicans to win every close Senate race this year except New Hampshire's, and end up taking control of the chamber. So it was plenty.