Do the midterm elections matter anymore?

WASHINGTON – The Iowa State Fair is over, but the circus is coming to town. On Sept. 14, Hillary and Bill Clinton will attend the 37th annual Harkin Steak Fry, the famous Iowa political event named after Sen. Tom Harkin.

A mess of journalists will rush after the couple, looking for signs of a presidential campaign and drawing conclusions on the nearest barn wall. (It is fitting that the event takes place on a hot air balloon field.) But there will also be thousands of normal human beings in that Indianola field, extending their phones like periscopes to capture one or both of the Clintons as they pledge allegiance before a vast flag or pretend to cook steak on a grill that’s almost as large.

The press will be there to cover the hype (and create it), but the people sinking their folding chairs into the grass during the political speeches will be there for the hope. It is the engine that drives all presidential campaigns. Voters are exhausted with Washington politicians debating one another in adjacent boxes on TV, but they can still be thrilled by a presidential candidate walking in the fall air. Some will have brought their kids so they can get a glimpse of perhaps the first female president. That’s not simply a change from the previous president, but from the 227 years there will have been presidents.

But is this the beginning or the end of something? This will be Harkin’s last steak fry –the senator is retiring after five terms, and there’s a tough fight to replace him. The winner will become a freshman in a body that is drastically different than the one Harkin entered – different even than the one Hillary Clinton joined in 2001. It is partisan and deadlocked, and the election of 2014 will show us why it’s likely to stay that way. The structure of modern politics is driving toward more gridlock. That means the sense of hope and high expectation that’s fueling all those people coming out to look at Hillary Clinton may be a vain one.

It’s easy to see why presidential campaigns encourage hope for progress. It’s not just that so many parties, including the media, are invested in the conceit that big ideas are being debated and decided by the electorate. The structure of the presidential campaign helps encourage the notion that, despite the occasional silliness, progress is being made. In Washington, it doesn’t seem to matter how many people march or protest, little happens when the gavel sounds.

In a campaign, though, every yard sign and Facebook posting is aimed at a guaranteed result: the verdict of Election Day. Everyone who chooses to participate can believe that he or she might be doing the thing that changes minds and determines outcomes. When that verdict is rendered, all the activity that led to it is supposed to represent the people’s will. A president chosen through that productive process will have a honeymoon and a mandate. But is that an old idea that has died? The election of 2012 changed nothing: Afterward it was the same players, the same debates, the same clog. Still, voters will show up in that field in Iowa this week, full of hope.

Usually we have to wait until a president disappoints us before the hope dissipates, but the tall oaks of disappointment are being planted this fall. The election feels national-control of the Senate is at stake, after all, and the president’s performance in office is on the ballot. But the electorate participating will be small, and there isn’t much actual engagement on national issues that could provide a mandate or give us a sense of the public mood. And even if there were, the politicians would learn soon enough to ignore the public message and follow the guidance of the structure that rules elections.

In the election of 2014, only a small number of seats are in a position to act as a proving ground for a battle of ideas. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate suggests that this might be the lowest midterm turnout in history. The number of people who will participate in states with elections that will determine control of the Senate is even smaller still. The House represents a national election of sorts, since all 435 members are up for re-election, but of that group only 30 (6 percent) are in races that are considered up for grabs.

Even if there were a great chunk of the population being asked to weigh in on competing visions about the issues of the day, those people would have lots of free time. The two parties are running parallel campaigns aimed at motivating their core voters. Republicans want the race to be about national issues and the failures of the president. Democrats want it to be about everything but that, so they’re focusing on local issues.

In North Carolina last week, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan ran four ads with voters describing how the education cuts of her opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, have affected them. On the other side, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched its second general election ad attacking Hagan for her ties to President Barack Obama. When the two candidates participated in their first debate last week, Hagan focused her remarks on how Tillis was bad for women. Tillis talked about how Hagan was a rubber stamp for the president. If the candidates aren’t discussing issues in an election, the election can’t ratify one set of policy ideas over another.

Elections don’t need to be about issues because, as the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out, congressional elections are increasingly just a method for voters to show their presidential preferences. In the 2006 midterm election, Republicans won six of the 10 Senate races in states where exit polls showed President George W. Bush’s approval rating reaching 46 percent or above, but lost 19 of the 20 in states where he stood at 45 percent or below. In 2010, Democrats won Senate races in nine of the 10 states in which President Obama’s approval reached 48 percent or higher, and lost 13 of the 15 states that gave him lower marks.

As Brownstein has been arguing, the death of split-ticket voting has changed the electoral structure so that senators who were once encouraged to compromise no longer have to. During the Reagan and Nixon presidencies, Republicans controlled about half the Senate seats in the states they won. That meant there were Democrats representing states that preferred Republicans at the presidential level. That encouraged compromise. A senator needed to show his voters who did not share his ideology that he was not abandoning them. But that pressure has disappeared. During Bill Clinton’s term, two-thirds of the senators from states Clinton carried were also Democrats. Under George W. Bush, that share became three-fourths. Now, under Obama, Democrats hold 83 percent of the Senate seats in the states he won.

Democrats are sure to lose seats in 2014, and they may lose control of the Senate, which should be the ultimate rebuke of their party and their president. But since elections are increasingly driven by structural rather than policy differences, the incentive will be for Democrats to hew to the structure, not bend to some new policy view ratified by the last election. The 2016 map favors Democrats the way the 2014 map favors Republicans.

Republican senators are on the ballot on blue or purple states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida,and Pennsylvania. Democrats will be encouraged to block Republican ideas and blame them as Obama-hating. In 2016 Democrats will run as the antidote to GOP overreach in a presidential election where members of the Democratic coalition turn out in greater numbers than they do during a midterm. If the first viable female nominee is on their ticket, that will help Democrats even more.

It won’t just be Democrats with an inclination to keep things bottled up in Washington. Republican senators facing re-election will have to fear challenges from the Tea Party on the right. One GOP strategist is advising every Republican up for re-election in 2016 to plan for a primary. That will not encourage Republicans running in competitive states to take vast risks for the sake of bipartisanship, particularly if the Democrats are being difficult.

Hope doesn’t have much of a chance in that environment. An even stronger version of this hope was on display at the Harkin Steak Fry in 2006 when President Obama was the keynote speaker. Iowa was a spiritual birthplace for Obama, since his victory in its state caucus boosted his chances. He went on to win the state twice in the general elections. But that hope was dashed, too.

As I was typing this piece and making plane reservations to bring my tank of air to join the Hillary throng, an email came in from Gallup about the Iowa Senate race: “As a key U.S. Senate race unfolds in Iowa … Obama’s approval rating among Iowans for the first half of the year stood at 38 percent, five percentage points below the national average and the lowest rating Gallup has measured in Iowa during his presidency.”

At an Iowa campaign rally, presidential candidates present a world of easy possibility. Solutions promise to be effective, and entrenched opposition is easy to vanquish. The stump speeches are infectious, because at a time of high cynicism, people allow themselves the chance to believe that it really could be like this. Perhaps Sen. Rand Paul or Gov. Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton can pull this off.

Every presidential season the feeling that the right candidate can change things gets replanted like a field of corn. But the way elections are heading, the idea that salvation can arise from an Iowa cornfield is starting to feel like something that only makes sense in Hollywood.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.” He can be reached at slatepolitics@gmail.com.