That Donkey in the Mirror

11.05.14 10:45 AM ET

How the Lame Democrats Blew It

It’s not that the Republicans won the Senate. The Democrats lost it, by being afraid to have a strong message and motivate their voters.

Contrary to the musings of various pollsters and political pundits, Democrats never stood a chance. Many of the so-called “razor-close” races in key states were never truly competitive. In the aftermath, those same supposed experts and prognosticators (most of whom have never run a campaign of any stripe) will blame poor voter turnout and the president’s lackluster approval ratings.

And they will be partially right. However, it’s worth noting that this brand of thinking has deep implications for 2016—no matter who is at the top of the Democratic ticket—and beyond. As we move beyond November and into the next big contest, there are clear and hard lessons to be learned. Democrats’ winning the White House, regaining a majority in the Senate, or in their dreams the House, depends on it.

Anything else is just another Weekend at Bernie’s. Or, in this case, a Tuesday night.

While there is a lot of truth to the notion that midterm voter turnout is a challenging for a liberal coalition comprised of the country’s most “unlikely” voters, the real story is this. Candidates from Arkansas to Kentucky, from Iowa to Georgia, lacked message discipline and skipped one opportunity after another to effectively target voters with any notable precision. For all of the bellyaching, tooth gnashing, and public wailing, Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. Their collective failings come down to message discipline, candidate selection, and voter targeting.

Let’s start with the message. In the waning days and hours of the fall midterm, the “party of ideas” frankly had too many, and almost none of them resonated with the base. It was hard to get too excited about red state Democrats who would rather kiss a bag of dead frogs than talk about Medicaid expansion, wage an all-out fight on the minimum wage, or press for meaningful gun control. Nary a word was uttered about voter suppression.

Democratic voters were left to feast on the bones of “bi-partisanship,” “growth,” and “accountability”-- words that mean next to nothing when it comes to stretching a paycheck or putting dinner on the table. Call me cynical, but campaigns aren’t won on love. They are won on fear.

And that brings me to an otherwise affable cast of candidates. Rather than stand on and fight for progressive principles, these candidates fed voters a diet of stump speeches, campaign literature, and television ads that sought to gussy themselves up as non-confrontational centrists who are less likely to wage war with conservatives than they are to brew them a cup of hot cocoa and tuck them into bed at night. Alas, such is the raison d’être for Blue Dogs. 

One and all, they come shaking their tin cups at election time then run like the wind when a critical vote comes up. “I’m a problem solver” really means “I will break party ranks when it is most politically expedient.” Forgive me, but I’ve had my fill of super committees and gangs of six, eight, or 14.

Winning doesn’t mean being everything to everybody. It means mounting a campaign that reaches your voters with your message and turning them out on Election Day. That’s why Republicans continue to win local and district level races. That’s why an otherwise out-of-touch party of old white men continues to be competitive nationally, even when the numbers say otherwise.

Lastly, despite the boatloads of cash pumped into otherwise winnable races, voter targeting was a ninth inning, full-count strike three that Democrats could not overcome. Campaign operatives, no doubt, studied the 2010 midterm voter rolls and decided to cast their lot with sectors of the electorate deemed most likely to turn out. After all, that’s what they teach in political science lecture halls, right? Conventional wisdom always appears reasonable until it isn’t.

In doing so, they dismissed throngs of would-be voters who once wrapped themselves around polling places in 2008 and 2012—the Obama Coalition. For instance, I personally received dozens of direct mailers, while my grown children—all of whom are in their 20s and all of whom voted in the last presidential elections—received none. No e-mails, no text messages, not a single point of contact, unless you count last-minute ads on black radio that feature aging civil rights leaders with no real connection to young voters. Did I mention that my children, like most millennials, no longer listen to the radio and rarely watch television?

Before you start chewing on your shirt about how the low turnout rates among college students means Democrats shouldn’t bother, ask yourself why Republicans are working overtime to keep them from voting. Young voters do vote when you give them a reason to.

For all of their potency, women voters didn’t get much more. Save for Mark Udall in Colorado pushing contraceptive issues or Michelle Nunn trumpeting the importance of Georgia’s Pre-K program, public education and reproductive rights were ruled passé this time around.

Say what you will about Obama’s presidency, but Obama For America, the campaign organization that turned out so many voters, took a good look at behavioral trends and effectively exploited them. Fueled by a well-honed messaging and technology-driven targeting, an otherwise unknown candidate sailed into office. OFA turned conventional wisdom on its head and made it dance. Twice.

It did so by seeing voters as more than names and addresses on file with the secretary of state’s Office.  It did it by understanding what moves them, by identifying their most personal motivations (and fears). It did it by looking beyond the rolls and taking the country block-by-block, stitching together the most unlikely of unlikely coalitions.

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Unless and until Democrats get back to fielding strong progressives candidates who are willing to run on progressive ideas, it will not matter what the coming demographic tide looks like.  It won’t matter how many Clintons you bus in. They won’t hear you if you’re not talking to them.

In the end, Republicans did not win control of the Senate so much as the Democrats delivered it like a field-dressed moose. Forgive my candor, though such is my wont, but much like that moose on a spit, Bernie is dead. Plan a nice funeral, if you must, sing some songs, and send him off with a bouquet of winter lilies.

But, by all, means bury him.