Five political realities that should worry Democrats

Two weeks after election day, political junkies like me are still processing what happened. Losing control of the U.S. Senate was the most obvious bad outcome for Democrats, but maybe not the most concerning one. The Senate map for 2016 gives Democrats a lot of opportunities to make up ground.

Five other political realities have been bothering me more.  

1. Turnout remained low, especially among groups that are key to the Democratic coalition.

Despite the largest investment ever seen in Democratic field staff for a midterm election, turnout in 2014 dropped to the lowest level seen in more than 70 years. Furthermore, the voter universe was way more white and male than Democrats needed it to be. An estimated 75 percent of those who cast ballots were white, for instance. There was also a big drop-off among younger voters, and the young people who did cast ballots favored Democratic candidates by a smaller margin than young voters did in 2012.

Voter interest and participation were higher in battleground states than in states without competitive contests. For that reason, Nate Cohn takes a contrarian view, declaring the Democratic field effort “probably a success,” even if the election results were not.

The evidence for a fairly successful Democratic turnout effort is straightforward. Whether judged by county or by precinct where available, turnout tended to increase most over 2010 levels in Democratic-leaning counties in core battleground states. The drop-off in Democratic counties and precincts compared with 2012 – a presidential year, when turnout is higher – was generally more modest in the Senate battlegrounds than elsewhere.

It’s worth clicking through to read Cohn’s whole case, particularly his comparison of this year’s turnout in North Carolina (where Democrats invested in a big ground game) and Virginia (where they did not).

Still, it’s hard to argue that Democrats learned much this year about how to make marginal voters participate in a midterm election. That concerns me looking ahead to 2018, when control of the Iowa legislature will be at stake, we will choose a new governor, and we will need strong campaigns for other statewide offices like attorney general and secretary of state.

2. The GOP looks set to control the U.S. House for a long time.

Talk of a hundred-year majority may be hubris, but Republicans have won more U.S. House seats than at any time since 1928. They picked up a bunch of seats Democrats didn’t consider endangered before the election. Republicans don’t hold many seats with a Democratic “partisan voting index,” giving Democrats few obvious pickup targets going forward. Nate Cohn summarized the key problems facing Democrats.

The Republican grip on the House is underpinned by the tendency for Democrats to waste votes in heavily urban or nonwhite districts; the low Democratic turnout in off-year elections; the recent Democratic advantage in presidential elections; the advantages of incumbency; and partisan gerrymandering.

Speaking of gerrymandering,

3. Republicans increased their dominance of state legislatures.

Republicans made big gains in state legislative elections across the country. In fact, “The GOP now controls 68 out of 98 partisan state legislative chambers — the highest number in the history of the party.”

That means more gerrymandering after 2020, cementing the GOP advantage in the U.S. House. Perhaps more important, it means the GOP “bench” of future candidates for governor or Congress will be stronger and deeper than the Democratic pool in many states.

The two major Democratic accomplishments at the state legislative level were holding the Iowa Senate and the Kentucky House of Delegates. But a big opportunity to expand the Iowa Senate majority was missed when Democrats failed to recruit a strong candidate in Sioux City and blew the chance to beat Senator Mark Chelgren in an Ottumwa-based district. We are still clinging to the ledge at 26 to 24 seats, and Republicans will have several decent Iowa Senate pickup chances in 2016.

Bleeding Heartland will have more to say about the Iowa House (where Republicans enlarged their majority) in a future post.

4. Outside spending by political advocacy groups increasingly dominates the landscape.

In many federal races, spending by outside groups far exceeded spending by the Democratic and Republican candidates. A Brennan Center analysis found, “In the 11 most competitive senate races, there has been $342 million in spending by groups other than the candidates and the political parties.” Open Secrets calculated more than $506 million in outside spending on Senate races and $284 million in outside spending on House races if political party committee spending is included. If you exclude spending by party committees such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the National Republican Congressional Committee, that still leaves a staggering $410 million spent on Senate races and $149 million on House races.

Looking at individual races, outside spending doesn’t appear to give a big advantage to Republicans. For instance, the Open Secrets chart on the IA-Sen race shows roughly $32.2 million in spending by groups supporting Joni Ernst (either on pro-Ernst or anti-Braley activities), while Democratic-aligned groups spent just under $28 million on activities opposing Ernst or supporting Braley.

However, my hunch is that the deluge of political advertising, most of it negative, hurts Democratic candidates more than Republicans. Political science research from the 1990s indicated that intensely negative campaigns tend to drive down turnout. People who aren’t political junkies get disgusted and stay home on election day. If those trends still hold (and I suspect they do), that is a much bigger problem for the party that needs more less-engaged, sporadic voters to participate.

This year political ads started saturating some Iowa media markets in July and kept going all the way through to November. I don’t see any reason that pattern won’t continue in future elections, since we no longer have real limits on political contributions that can be used for electioneering. Democratic candidates can’t let attacks go unanswered, but if both sides blast each other for months, Republicans will have an edge anyway, as their supporters are more reliable voters.

5. Non college-educated white voters may be trending away from Democrats.

Harry Enten fleshed out this argument at FiveThirtyEight last week. Excerpt:

There are a lot of white voters in Iowa without a college degree, and they have differed politically from their demographic counterparts nationally. In 2008, President Obama won non-college whites in Iowa by 6 percentage points; he lost them nationally by 18 points. In 2012, college-educated and non-college-educated whites both broke by about 6 percentage points for Obama. That’s very different from nationwide, where Mitt Romney won non-college whites by 25 percentage points while winning college-educated whites by 14 points.

In the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, polls showed Iowa’s white voters behaving normally – well, normally abnormal – favoring the Democrat more than their demographic kin nationally. Last month, two Marist polls showed Braley trailing by 5 percentage points among Iowans with a college degree and down an average of just 1.5 points among those without a college education.1 Overall, Braley was down by only 2.5 percentage points, on average, in Marist’s October surveys.

According to the exit polls, however, Braley lost non-college-educated voters of all races by 10 percentage points. His performance among the college-educated matched pre-election polls. But among non-college whites, Braley lost by 14 points.

We can see this in the county-by-county returns. The biggest drop-off from Obama’s 2012 margin to Braley’s 2014 margin was in those counties that had a higher share of whites without a college degree. In those counties, every percentage point of additional non-college-educated voters meant a 0.3 percentage-point drop in Braley’s margin.2

Side note: Johnson County, which has the highest proportion of college-educated residents, was the only Iowa county where Braley got as large a share of the votes as he would have needed to win statewide.

I am not convinced yet that this is a real trend, as opposed to a Braley-specific problem. Relentless radio and television advertising reminded Iowans that Braley was a snooty lawyer who supposedly looked down on farmers. But Enten argues that we can’t chalk these results up to

a bad Democratic candidate, or a bad Democratic year. It was a reflection of the movement of the Iowa electorate over the past two years – specifically, movement of non-college-educated whites who shifted away from the Democratic Party. The gap in voting patterns between college-educated and non-college-educated whites in Iowa looks a lot more like the nation. That’s not good news for Democrats.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

  • Random thoughts

    1.  We need more clean energy jobs in places like Arkansas and West Virginia.  Even if people don’t vote for us there, we should do the right thing and fight for a better standard of living there.  Currently, Democrats take too much of a “What’s The Matter with Kansas?” attitude to poor people that they should be fighting for.

    2.  Arkansas Democrats had four solid candidates on the ballot in federal/state races and got clobbered.  We can’t just blame the whole thing on race, when people lose their income they become very scared and in some ways become more conservative.  Democrats are too focused on identity politics IMO and not focused on the message of Bobby Kennedy about lifting people out of poverty.

    Nick Casey ran a phenomenal race with Shelley Moore Capito also on the ballot in WV-2.  I hope he or someone serious tries again in 2016 with some female voters coming out to back Hillary Clinton.  

    • we do need more clean energy jobs

      but we’re not going to get them as long as West Virginia voters keep electing people who are 100 percent behind coal.

      All of the southern states are pretty much lost to us. It’s a trend 50 years in the making, but I certainly believe having a black president accelerated the end stage. I don’t see how we rebuild the Democratic brand in a place like Arkansas.

      • Very true

        You’re right on all fronts, but we have to develop a strategy.  Simply complaining about how every state gets equal representation in the Senate isn’t going to win people over either.  Some of the smallest states in the union happen to be blue as well.

        I’ve seen Democrats get really smug for a while.  I guess some of them don’t understand why Bruce Braley lost by a fairly significant margin.  We’ve got to stop being so smug.  Republicans hold Senate seats in Florida, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, a lot of heavily populated states.  We’re lucky Sherrod Brown and Bill Nelson are good candidates or Republicans might hold both seats.

        We have to continue to try to raise incomes for people, that’s what we need to be about.  Hopefully we would be able to do through the workforce, with mechanization moving at the pace it does a lot of people even get discouraged after they worked hard for their degree.

  • Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.

    People won’t turn out for Clinton. She’s a snooty lawyer that hasn’t driven a car since the 90s. Ted Kennedy was reminded that things like drowning a girl still matter years later when you run for president. Whitewater and the last minute pardons will come up. Benghazi will come up. The media made a lot of money this cycle by not letting anything the Democrats said go. It’s easy to make rich Democrats look like hypocrites. That’s why they get school for it and republicans don’t. We will see that again in16 too.  

    • Come on John

      John, I’ve had a couple of conversations with you on Facebook. You are a good person and a decorated veteran.  You have a very bright future ahead of you, and I’m not talking down to you either.

      I’ve voted for numerous Republicans over the years.  I will vote for more.  Automatically discrediting Hillary Clinton as a serious general election candidate makes you look like a troll dude, don’t jump the shark.  You bring up Whitewater, the pardons and Benghazi?  You honestly think Clinton won’t have an answer for any of that?  Get real.

      Ted Kennedy should have resigned from the Senate after that horrific tragedy, you are correct about that IMO.  

      • I'm not trolling

        I’d like to see some people build some serious support for somebody like Jim Webb or anybody who could challenge Clinton. Hilary Clinton walking through the primary will play out like Braley in Iowa.

        As much as the Clinton-haters seem like facebook talking heads, it will get turned into commercials with scary music and black and white photos that everyone hears about. Amid ISIS new reports which will stay in the headlines for the next year the old Peter Hart commercial about “answering the red phone” will be reshot referencing Hiliary and Benghazi. It may not bring people to vote GOP, but it will keep them home. Young people don’t get excited about old things. They are optimistic and want to change the world. Hilary will get all the burden of Obama’s legacy and bring nothing novel to excite supporters. She was also in the top of his cabinet. Many people feel let down by Obama. They won’t vote Clinton.  

        • wishful thinking

          That’s what you are engaging in.

          Smart Republicans realize they are going to have a hell of a time competing with Hillary Clinton. In the Des Moines Register’s poll last month, she even led most of the potential GOP field in Iowa AMONG 2014 ELECTION VOTERS (a smaller and more Republican-leaning pool of people than the 2016 electorate). And she does’t need Iowa, she is stronger in many other states that will push her over 270.  

        • attack ads

          work best against candidates who are largely unknown. The idea is to define them before they have a chance to define themselves. That won’t work as well against Hillary Clinton because people already know her and (for better or worse) already have an opinion about her.

        • Fair enough

          That is a reasoned argument.  The garbage that you put forward about Whitewater is not something voters will care about.  She will have to deal with the Obama Administration’s record.

          I know a lot of infrequent female voters that will vote for Hillary, they have no real problem with her.  That is what I was saying and I stand by that.  I also contend again that Dems should run a strong candidate in WV-2 with turnout likely being higher.  Are Dems likely to win that race? No, but the voters there deserve a choice.  

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