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The midterm election is boring...or not?

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton and his wife, Anna, greet supporters during an election night gathering in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Tuesday, November 4. Cotton, a Republican, has been projected to unseat Mark Pryor in the U.S. Senate. U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton and his wife, Anna, greet supporters during an election night gathering in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Tuesday, November 4. Cotton, a Republican, has been projected to unseat Mark Pryor in the U.S. Senate.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: Midterm elections don't excite voters but this year looks particularly dull
  • Kohn: Part of the reason is that election forecasters have taken the fun out of the process
  • She says congressional jobs and stories are not sexy; the media should try to fix this
  • Kohn: We need a culture of passionate political participation and voter enthusiasm

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. Given our short attention span, celebrity-driven culture, we're more drawn to the race to be the "leader of the free world" rather than "leader of the House Ways and Means Committee."

That said, this year's midterm elections look particularly dull. Or is it that our interest is dulled? Either way, it seems everyone is writing about how boring the midterms are -- from Peter Beinart in the Atlantic to Ezra Klein in Vox to David Brooks in the New York Times. So here's my take on why this midterm election is sort of dull, but not as dull as we think.

1. The forecasters have taken out all the fun

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

That's right, I blame Nate Silver. In the 2008 election, Silver used statistics and polling to correctly predict presidential election outcomes in 49 of the 50 states. This turned his science into a cult. It also catapulted what was once a fringe fixation of a few geeks into a major preoccupation of mainstream media. Now that we're inundated with these predictions, it's hard to know if they're predicting or predisposing the outcomes of the election.

After all, when FiveThirtyEight tells us Republicans have a 62.3% chance of winning the Senate and the New York Times' Upshot gives the GOP a 65% chance -- and the rest of media regurgitate and spread these "predictions" -- we can assume there's at least some effect of dampening voter motivation.

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On Election Day in 1980, when news outlets reported early that it looked like Reagan was going to beat Carter, voter turnout in California dropped 2%. Now we're reporting the results weeks, even months, before voters show up at the polls. Why get excited about voting? Nate Silver has already decided the election, right?

2. Gridlock isn't going anywhere

You can blame whichever side you want. Polls show Americans blame Republicans more, and I think they're right. Just look at how over the last five years Republicans have blocked virtually every policy President Obama has proposed even when those policies have been copied from the GOP wish list. Voters know this election won't change that.

"Democrats won't take back the House, and without the House, they can't kickstart Obama's agenda. Republicans might win the Senate, and that'll give them the leverage to do...what they're already doing," wrote Ezra Klein. Namely, Republicans refuse to do their job, obstruct even basic laws, and when they don't get their way, shut down the entire government and cost our nation billions. Of course we're disenchanted by an election that isn't going to fundamentally fix the reason why we're disenchanted with Washington as a whole.

3. We're awash in false consensus

As Peter Beinart noted, the 2002 midterm was animated by the debate over whether the United States should go to war in Iraq. The 2010 midterm was animated by the sense it was a voter referendum on Obamacare. But this midterm is a bit odd.

On the one hand, there's Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democrat running for the Senate in Kentucky, who sounds just like a Republican when she praises coal and the fossil fuel industry and runs adds attacking "illegal aliens." On the other hand, Republican Senate candidate for Arkansas Tom Cotton has indicated he supports his state's effort to raise the minimum wage.

Candidates on both sides of the political aisle are fairly unanimous in supporting military strikes on ISIS and bolstering big businesses. Sure, there are major differences on issues like women's rights and economic policies, but both parties are largely trying to play from the center of the court, neither alienating nor exciting anyone.

4. What's at stake isn't sexy

As long as Republicans control one or more houses of Congress, the legislative logjam will continue. But Senate control has other implications, namely, the ability of Republicans to further obstruct President Obama's nominations and other appointments. The White House has posted a list of 241 nominations and appointments awaiting Senate confirmation, which have been held up by the Republican minority in the Senate. The list includes 55 ambassadors and the surgeon general, who many have noted would have been helpful to have in place to coordinate our nation's response to Ebola.

Expect this kind of obstruction behavior to get worse. The next Senate will consider even more controversial appointments, including the successor to Attorney General Eric Holder. Don't be surprised if Republicans throw such a tantrum over whomever Obama nominates that we don't have an Attorney General for the rest of Obama's term. And if a Supreme Court justice retires or resigns? Full Republican Armageddon. With potentially disastrous consequences for decades to come.

The appointments -- especially Supreme Court justices but also commissioners at the Consumer Products Safety Commission and federal judges and appointees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- play a vital role in determining policies that would affect us in our daily lives. Maybe the American media need to do a much better job of telling the public how important these roles are.

5. We don't have a culture of electoral enthusiasm

I've had the privilege of being in other parts of the world during elections, seeing rickety trucks decorated with political party regalia and bursting with cheering supporters bumping along the back roads of Indonesia. Or steadfast loyalists almost looking like they're wearing political Halloween costumes, face paint and all, to show support for their winning parties in Brazil.

I imagine that once upon a time, when women and black Americans finally won the right to vote in the United States, they felt ecstatic. It's the kind of electricity that many, especially young voters, felt for the first time in 2008 supporting Barack Obama.

But voter enthusiasm can't just be fleeting and episodic, tied to an occasional charismatic candidate. We need a culture of passionate political participation. I don't know how we could get there, but videos from the likes of Rock the Vote remind us of what's at stake and are a good start.

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