Can Democrats Win When Obama’s Not on the Ticket?

National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
May 13, 2014, 7:09 p.m.

By now, it’s ac­cep­ted wis­dom that Demo­crats per­form bet­ter in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, when the elect­or­ate is more di­verse and young­er, while the GOP’s strength is in midterm elec­tions, when their core voters are like­li­er to turn out. But it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that this is a re­cent phe­nomen­on, thanks to the chan­ging makeup of the Demo­crat­ic Party un­der Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency — and there’s no guar­an­tee it will con­tin­ue un­abated.

It wasn’t the case in 2004, when George W. Bush ef­fect­ively mo­bil­ized con­ser­vat­ive voters to over­come grow­ing pub­lic dis­sat­is­fac­tion to­ward his pres­id­ency. It wasn’t the case in 2006, when the Demo­crat­ic Party cap­it­al­ized on in­creased sup­port from older, white voters to re­take the House and Sen­ate. And it wasn’t the case in the dec­ades pri­or, when Demo­crats of­ten re­cor­ded sig­ni­fic­ant gains or out­per­formed ex­pect­a­tions in midterm years (1982, 1986, 1998), while Re­pub­lic­ans won five of sev­en pres­id­en­tial elec­tions from 1980 to 2004.

What’s changed is the makeup of both parties’ co­ali­tions. Seni­ors, who fre­quently voted Demo­crat­ic over pock­et­book is­sues like So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, have mi­grated in­to the Re­pub­lic­an column. White blue-col­lar voters, once a staple of Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tions past, have be­come es­tranged from their old polit­ic­al home over cul­tur­al is­sues. In their place are what my col­league Ron Brown­stein la­bels “the co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant”single wo­men, minor­it­ies, and mil­len­ni­al voters. Voters with­in these groups turned out at high levels in the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions to off­set Demo­crat­ic losses else­where.

The chal­lenge for Demo­crats in this year’s midterms is get­ting these “as­cend­ant” voters en­thu­si­ast­ic about show­ing up to the polls when Obama isn’t on the bal­lot — something that Demo­crat­ic turnout spe­cial­ists are work­ing over­time to achieve. Even if they don’t show up and Re­pub­lic­ans re­take the Sen­ate in 2014, the as­sump­tion is they’re bound to re­turn at sim­il­ar levels for the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. That’s not ne­ces­sar­ily the case.

To be sure, the grow­ing di­versity of the elect­or­ate presents Re­pub­lic­ans with fun­da­ment­al chal­lenges, re­gard­less of the turnout rates of the core Demo­crat­ic groups. But it’s also clear that the his­tor­ic nature of Pres­id­ent Obama’s can­did­acy helped him rally Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters to the polls in re­cord num­bers and at re­cord levels — a dy­nam­ic that’s un­likely to re­peat it­self in the fu­ture. For the first time in his­tory, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans voted at a high­er rate than whites in 2012, with 66.2 per­cent of eli­gible black voters cast­ing bal­lots. That’s up six points from 2004, the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in which Obama wasn’t on the bal­lot. In many urb­an, heav­ily Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pre­cincts, sup­port for Obama ran close to 100 per­cent. Without that same de­gree of sup­port in the fu­ture, Demo­crats will need to make up lost ground with white voters, while main­tain­ing the over­whelm­ing ad­vant­ages with His­pan­ic and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an voters they en­joyed in 2012.

A postelec­tion ana­lys­is from Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion demo­graph­er Wil­li­am Frey found that if turnout rates from all ra­cial groups re­mained at the same levels as 2004, Mitt Rom­ney would have won the pres­id­ency — by 9,000 votes. And if only minor­ity turnout dipped to its 2004 levels (with white turnout at its lower 2012 rate), Obama would have barely de­feated Rom­ney. Giv­en the grow­ing share of His­pan­ic and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an voters, that’s far from en­cour­aging news for Re­pub­lic­ans, but it’s also a cau­tion­ary tale for the party de­pend­ent on demo­graph­ic des­tiny to win fu­ture pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

In­deed, Demo­crats could find them­selves re­li­ant on brand-name can­did­ates to gen­er­ate the same de­gree of en­thu­si­asm that Obama offered like-minded voters over the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Hil­lary Clin­ton fits the bill, giv­en her unique ap­peal among wo­men and po­ten­tial to im­prove on Obama’s per­form­ance among work­ing-class voters. But would Joe Biden or any gen­er­ic Demo­crat­ic of­fice­hold­er provide them with the same ad­vant­ages? (Think Mar­tin O’Mal­ley versus Marco Ru­bio.)

Des­pite the di­ver­si­fy­ing Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion, the party’s bench is vir­tu­ally devoid of minor­ity of­fice­hold­ers. There are only four Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors or sen­at­ors of col­or, com­pared to sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans. Obama hasn’t brought along many oth­er Demo­crats who present the same post-ra­cial ap­peal he show­cased in 2008. Even Obama cam­paign strategist Dav­id Axel­rod ac­know­ledged the Demo­crat­ic Party “needs to do a bet­ter job” of re­cruit­ing more minor­ity of­fice­hold­ers on an Amer­ic­an Hos­pit­al As­so­ci­ation pan­el in which we both par­ti­cip­ated. Without those land­mark pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates in the fu­ture, it’s hard to see minor­ity voter en­thu­si­asm main­tain its healthy rate.

“Al­though long-term demo­graph­ic trends “¦ are fa­vor­able for the Demo­crats, trans­lat­ing those trends in­to true polit­ic­al and elect­or­al dom­in­ance will re­main dif­fi­cult so long as Demo­crats rely on simply turn­ing out core Obama co­ali­tion voters. Their mar­gins will be too thin and sub­ject to back­lash, es­pe­cially be­low the pres­id­en­tial level,” polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists Ruy Teixeira and An­drew Levis­on wrote last spring in The New Re­pub­lic. They later con­cluded: “If in 2016 white work­ing-class sup­port falls to or be­low the 33 per­cent it hit in 2012, a GOP pres­id­ent be­comes a very real pos­sib­il­ity.”

Teixeira, who pres­ci­ently an­ti­cip­ated that chan­ging demo­graph­ics would spur polit­ic­al re­align­ment in the land­mark book The Emer­ging Demo­crat­ic Ma­jor­ity, is now sug­gest­ing the lim­its Demo­crats face de­pend­ing en­tirely on the Obama-forged co­ali­tion. Mean­while, Obama’s job ap­prov­al among non­col­lege whites hit 29 per­cent in this month’s ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll.