Why Democrats shouldn't get cocky about 2016
The election cycle in 2016 will be tough for GOP Senate incumbents. The GOP will be defending 24 Senate seats to the Democrats' 10. And yes, Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president, will be formidable. And voters clearly do like gays, a higher minimum wage, a social safety net, and even health care reform. Sounds like good news all around for the Democrats, right?
Well, don't expect the 2016 election to be a blueberry cake walk for Democrats.
Point: Republicans have adapted rapidly to the Democratic technological advantage that's added a point or two to Democratic margins in tight races.
Point: The Democrats have lost ground among white women, ground they gained under President Obama, and are getting fewer and fewer votes from the South, even in states where minority turnout is growing. White working-class voters chose Obama in 2012 over a Republican presidential candidate who, in John Judis' phrase, "reeked of money and privilege." The GOP candidate in 2016 will probably be a governor who reeks of whatever food is associated with his colorful state.
Point: Obama has noted that he won't be on the ballot in 2016. Not technically, of course, but every open general election uses as a point of departure the shared wisdom of how the last eight years went. Obama's approval rating by the time he leaves office needs to be higher than it is now. The collective "sense" that his administration was successful needs to be shared more widely than it is in order for Democratic presidential candidates to have a basic foundation for messaging. And since Obama won't be on the ballot, it might be harder to replicate the exact "Obama coalition" that proved critical to his election and re-election. Will he be a net negative for the Democratic nominee? How will the nominee work with the White House? Will they run together? Can they run together? Obama won't be on the ballot, but he'll be around the ballot, and how voters feel about this will be determined by what happens over the next few years.
Point: Republicans control state governments that continue to pass and refine voter identification laws that disproportionately hurt traditionally Democratic constituencies
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told Greg Sargent the party's problem was in its messaging:
Not articulating a message sounds kind of empty. After big losses, political consultants like to use structural verbs like "frame" and "articulate," followed by "narrative" and "message." In practice, this means the consultants want candidates and the party to spend money on television advertising that repeats a few consistent phrases. The top priority for 2016, Lake told Sargent, is to "articulate a clear economic vision to get this country moving again." Which, if course, is exactly right, but it says exactly nothing.
Peeling back the onion a bit: It's up to Democrats to figure out how to square this circle. Voters don't like how government does what it does, and they don't trust it to do what it does, but insist that what it does do must get done.
President Obama had a record that Democrats could run on. A growing economy. Rising energy independence. Lower gas prices. Reducing the deficit.
He saddled himself with liabilities, too: the sense that government had gotten too big, that it fumbled major tasks, like getting the health care reform system up and running, that the economic reforms he championed benefited the finance class and his donors to the detriment of the middle class.
Democratic candidates chose to run from the latter and did not even try to figure out how to run on the former. Where Obama's policies were on the ballot, as a reporter mentioned at Wednesday's press conference, they did better than he did.
So what can Democrats do?
Savor your policy wins, recruit candidates who can stand up for themselves, find consultants who can figure out how to sell people on policies they instinctively support, lavish attention on state legislatures, and spend your Hollywood millions on redistricting reform fights.
Don't expect the "new" demography to provide enough give for at least a decade if not more. Don't assume that Hillary Clinton will easily win and offer long coattails.
Don't underestimate the correlation of forces that will complicate elections for you in the near-term.