If historical precedent is a guide, President Obama should be worried about the recent spate of Democrats who have declared that they won’t attend their own party’s national convention. But the lawmakers’ decision to stay home doesn’t have other Democrats reaching for the panic button yet.
Such defections amounted to an early alarm bell as recently as 2008, when a deluge of Republicans steered clear of the Republican National Convention lest they be associated with a then-deeply unpopular GOP. Three months later, a Democratic wave swept the White House and congressional elections.
Now Democrats are the ones abandoning ship. Already five House members -- Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, Kathy Hochul and Bill Owens of New York, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, and Jim Matheson of Utah –- have joined Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri in deciding that they won’t attend this year’s Democratic National Convention.
The lawmakers all say they want to focus on their home states, where most are in close races. “If you’re running for Congress and your first focus is party conventions and national party politics instead of the middle class voters in your district, then you’re focused on the wrong thing," says Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But the desertions have prompted GOP catcalls that their rivals are implicitly acknowledging that the president’s campaign is in serious trouble. McCaskill "isn't just any Dem," Republican National Committee spokesman Tim Miller said on Tuesday in a tweet. "She was Obama's top surrogate in '08. Avoiding him at all costs shows just how bad it is for O out there."
Whether 2012 turns into a mirror version of 2008 remains to be seen, but most Democrats view their colleagues' moves as a sound political decision for members who need to separate themselves from a president who is deeply unpopular in some parts of the country. Even some Republicans concede that declaring a GOP wave is premature, though that hardly conceals the glee they feel about the president struggling with a problem that dogged them just four years ago.
“I think problem is a little more different this time than it was for us in 2008,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the 2008 National Republican Congressional Committee chairman who watched his own colleagues stay away from the St. Paul convention site. “I don’t think anyone was staying away for John McCain, but there was certainly Bush fatigue."
The now-former president didn’t attend the RNC that year, Cole added, but only because a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico canceled the convention’s first day. Obama will be at his own convention. “There is no question their folks are trying to escape,” Cole said.
Skipping conventions isn’t a new move: In 2008, six Republican senators, including four facing reelection, announced by August they wouldn’t attend the Republican convention. Matheson, who has served in Congress since 2001, has never attended a Democratic convention.
Historically, the formula for determining whether to go to a convention is simple: If your party and its presidential nominee are in political trouble, stay away.
“I’m sure a lot of Republicans weren’t flocking to the [Barry] Goldwater convention in 1964 or Democrats to the [George] McGovern convention in 1972,” Cole said.
In fact, Cole reportedly told his own members to stay away in 2008. Declining an invitation to the convention might be a minor decision in the context of an entire campaign, but it’s a chance to tangibly break with an unpopular president and national party. Unless a well-funded member has the resources to host a big-dollar fundraiser at the convention, Democrats say, their time is better spent raising money and campaign in their own district.
“Basically, only something negative could happen if they are worried about image at top of the ticket,” said Eric Ostermier, a University of Minnesota political scientist. “What are these moderate or conservative Democrats worried about? Well, who is speaking? What might be said? What are the images and symbolism that will be presented?"
All their opponents would need, he said, would be one televised clip of them cheering. “It could be a powerful image and put them on the defensive,” said Ostermier, who also authors the blog Smart Politics.
Rather than foreshadowing an impending Democratic wipeout, the lawmakers’ decision to stay home is an acknowledgment that they and the president must travel starkly different pathways to victory. And that means Obama, even if his campaign remains afloat, could sink their own hopes.
The divergent strategies are rooted in demographics. Obama’s campaign has targeted a combination of minorities and white-collar whites, particularly women, to win a majority of the election. That could be a winning strategy for him, but it’s unworkable for Critz, Hochul, Matheson, Owens, and Rahall. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, each of their districts is at least 92 percent white. And particularly in the case of Critz and Rahall, who represent the culturally conservative regions of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, respectively, their constituents are also overwhelmingly blue-collar -- a group that has soured on Obama.
It’s not a new problem in the party, according to Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, but Obama’s reliance on a diverse group of coalitions puts greater strain on other members.
“The coalition that elects Democrats is much more diffuse and diverse,” she said. “It is a coalition that is as different, it's less white, with more different groups. People running for office, this is always a bit of a challenge, because the coalition is separate.”
Tanden added that she doubts their absence bothers the Obama campaign. “I think the campaign recognizes that winning elections is the most important thing,” she said.
In a sign that candidates in both parties sometimes feel the pressure to sever ties to the national party, Montana Republican Senate candidate Denny Rehberg said on Monday that he won’t attend the GOP gathering.