The Dems’ Midterm Performance Anxiety
Democrats might keep electing presidents, but until they figure out how to get their core groups to vote in midterms, it won’t matter.
In one sense I hope the Democrats get massacred next Tuesday, because if they skate through and keep the Senate, they won’t bother to fix their long-term problem. Whereas, a massacre, well, it focuses the mind. And focus is what they need to figure out a way to do something once and for all about getting their core constituencies to vote in off-year elections.
As you’ve read a kajillion times by now, young people and single women and African Americans and Latinos don’t vote as much in midterm elections, and as the parties bifurcate ever more deeply—as old white people become more and more Republican, say—the problem for Democrats is just going to get worse as time goes on.
This is not simply a matter of losing a few elections. As the saying goes, elections have consequences. A reliably Republican midterm electorate will cancel out a Democratic-leaning presidential-year electorate and then some. It will always be one step forward and two steps back.
Let’s run hypothetically through the next few election cycles. In 2016, let’s say Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. That will also be a good year for the Democrats in Senate races, too—the fact that so many Republicans won in 2010 means that the GOP will have to defend 23 seats in 2016, and the Democrats just nine (a couple more are up in the air right now). This will include a handful of Republicans in blue or swing states who’ll have targets on their backs: Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Richard Burr in North Carolina. Looking at the Democratic nine, seven are totally safe, and the other two (Nevada and Colorado) should probably be fine in a presidential turnout year.
So let’s say the Democrats retake the Senate in 2016. Yippee. Democratic president, Democratic Senate. Of course, the House will still be Republican, so President Clinton’s dreams will still largely go there to die. And of course again, a Democratic Senate with a majority in the 53 or 54 neighborhood (that is, well short of the 60 votes needed to move bills to final passage) may not be worth that much. But at least she’d have a legislative partner on Capitol Hill and a glimmer of hope of passing some items. And—don’t forget this!—at least she’d get some appointees cleared and a Supreme Court nominee (or with any luck two) confirmed.
OK, now let’s think about 2018. First off, yes, there are people out there who are already handicapping the 2018 elections. Secondly, as with the GOP in 2010, the Democrats did unusually well in the presidential year of 2012, so they’ll have more seats to defend in ’18: a whopping 25 (actually 23 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them), while the Republicans will have just eight. Three of those Democratic incumbents represent Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota. Heavy turbulence already. Three more are from Florida, Missouri, and Ohio. Meanwhile, only two of the eight seats in GOP hands are likely to be remotely contested.
So 2018 will shape up as another wipeout, and the Senate will flip back to the GOP again. At that point, forget President Clinton’s agenda. A Republican Congress would obviously do everything it felt it could get away with to hurt the economy and hobble her chances for reelection. And appointments and confirmations? I’m not wishing ill on anyone here, but let’s just imagine that one of our older conservative jurists goes off to join that great judicial bench in the sky in 2019. Think a GOP Senate would let her replace him, flipping the court from a conservative majority to a liberal one? Maybe, but not without an apocalyptic fight.
Then will come 2020. Let’s say Clinton manages to get herself reelected. The senators who win next week will be defending their seats, so in a presidential year, the Democrats will arguably win back a couple of the seats they’re going to lose next week. In addition, 2020 might present an opportunity to take back the House, if the Democrats can keep that close between now and then (yes, there’s probably no shot until then). But that’s a heavy lift. So things might improve around the margins after 2020. But then will come 2022, and all the Democratic senators who won in 2016 with presidential-level turnout will have to defend their seats in the sixth year of a Democratic incumbency…
Got it? It’s the definition of hell. We may keep electing Democratic presidents, as long as the economy doesn’t go kablooey again and the demography keeps changing while Republicans refuse to. And it will certainly be better to have a Democratic president than not. At least she or he will try to do something about the minimum wage (aside from abolish it), will support same-sex marriage, will tolerate and maybe even occasionally attempt to help trade unions, will accept that climate change is a legitimate concern for the species.
But he or she won’t be able to do much of anything about any of these matters until the Democratic Party finds a way to communicate to its core constituencies that they must vote in off-years. What is needed here is a massive and very well-funded public education campaign that is ongoing—I mean that never stops—and that explains to people why they can’t elect a president and just sit back and expect that he or she can wave a wand and make change happen.
You’d think people would have learned that from these Obama years. I don’t think they have. In fact I think they’ve learned a lesson, but an incorrect one. We talk about the president in personal terms in this country all the time; we imbue him with powers he doesn’t actually have. We attribute his successes or failures to the presence or lack of some special sauce that he does or does not possess.
So what most people think they have learned is that Obama is too personally weak to push his legislative agenda through, and that a stronger leader could do better. Without making any case for Obama’s leadership style, which I do find wanting in some important ways, that’s a jejune and delusional view of today’s Washington. Obama can’t get his agenda through because the Republicans in Congress have no structural incentive to compromise and in fact have every structural incentive to obstruct. I needn’t go into all the reasons for that now; I suspect you know them. But this is the reality. Obama could be Lyndon Johnson on steroids and have Republican legislators over to the White House for bourbon every night, and it wouldn’t change a thing.
If I’m right about the above—which I am!—then that presents two possible paths of action. One, create incentives for the Republicans to compromise. That would be nice but that’s something Democrats can’t really do. So that leaves us with No. 2—get as many of them as possible out of office. That means Democratic voters have to vote in large numbers in midterm elections, and that will only happen as a result of the kind of campaign I describe above.
Here’s an example of what I mean by an ongoing campaign. Say sometime in 2017, President Clinton misses getting some progressive bill passed in the Senate by two votes. And let’s say that Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner eke out 1-point victories next week in Iowa and Colorado, respectively. And of course they will have voted no.
At that moment, right after the failed vote, there will need to be a massive television and video and social-media campaign in Iowa and Colorado that says to people: “President Clinton just tried to pass X. It failed by two votes. Joni Ernst/Cory Gardner voted no. Ernst/Gardner became a senator in a midterm election. S/he won by 1 point. Why? Because the black vote fell off 8 percent, the Latino vote 11 percent, the youth vote 14 percent. If it hadn’t, we’d have had a different senator who’d have voted yes. But we don’t. So this progressive legislation failed. Do you get it now?”
That’s the kind of dot-connecting that Democrats have to do with these voters on an ongoing basis. And hopefully, by 2018, people will understand that a president is only as powerful as her congressional majority.