By Jonathan Topaz, POLITICO
Have Republicans disrupted Democrats’ demographic advantage?
The president was a major drag on his party, particularly given a challenging Senate map.
Turnout was historically low, even for a midterm election.
The 2014 Republican landslide has both parties poring over the data, hoping to glean insights about the current state of the electorate before the 2016 election. But it might take until the next presidential cycle to answer the most pressing question: Is Republicans’ 2014 success the result of significant changes in how voters view the two parties, or is the structural difference between the electorates in presidential and midterm years so great that Democrats still maintain a strong demographic advantage going into 2016?
After a series of discussions with political experts, pollsters and strategists, here are the five things we learned about American voters this year.
1. The Democrats’ working-class-whites problem is serious.
After two years of warnings about Republicans’ woeful performance among nonwhite voters in 2012, the midterms showed that Democrats have their own significant demographic vulnerability: working-class white voters. Republicans won white voters without a college degree by 30 points, 64 percent to 34 percent, according to exit polls, equal to their margin in the wave election of 2010. Polling data show that support for President Barack Obama among working-class whites has dropped eight points since 2010.
A new and potentially more popular steward of the Democratic Party — most notably Hillary Clinton — might boost those numbers. But some say the party needs to embrace economic populism after an administration that has prioritized the Affordable Care Act and the environment over a platform focused on wages and other “pocketbook” issues.
“Democrats have chosen to focus on issues that the liberal base of the party really likes, but the working-class person in West Virginia or Arkansas or Louisiana or Alaska doesn’t necessarily identify with,” said political analyst Charlie Cook.
Cook pointed to those four states — where Republicans captured Democratic-held Senate seats this year — to argue that Democrats are a “marginalized party” across much of the country.
“This is more than just a bad year for Democrats,” he said. “The challenge that the Democratic Party has in parts of the country appears to be even more formidable than it was two years ago.”
Added former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.): “Democrats really gave up on small towns and exurban America.”
And even though Republicans have yet to make significant inroads among minorities, the GOP could make up for those losses by further enhancing its performance among white voters.
“Given what’s happening with working-class voters and how disenchanted they are with the Democratic Party … Republicans still have a chance to win the presidency without [making] significant changes to policy,” said GOP consultant Ford O’Connell.
Democrats won’t necessarily be able to count on the same level of minority turnout in 2016 without Obama. At the same time, Mitt Romney in 2012 won a larger share of the white vote of any GOP nominee since George H.W. Bush and still lost the presidency.
2. Lax campaign finance laws are further separating the American electorate from candidates.
In 29 federal races this year, outside groups outspent the candidates themselves, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Donors pumped in more money at the same time the number of donors likely decreased. And 2014 had the most “dark money” — campaign dollars spent by undisclosed donors — than any midterm election in history.
“This is a game-changer because congressional candidates cannot control their own message,” said Paul Herrnson, executive director of the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. “Incumbents will spend even more time raising money” moving forward, he added.
Conservative groups comprised nearly three-quarters of the “dark money” in the 2014 cycle. Liberals, meanwhile, increased their “dark-money” spending from $10.7 million in 2010 to $33 million in 2014, according to CFR.
3. Even the best turnout machine needs a message.
Democratic operatives earned considerable praise for their turnout operation in 2012, but again the party suffered a midterm thrashing in large part because young and minority voters again stayed home.
“You can’t win on turnout when you have already lost on message,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. Referring to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s “Bannock Street Project” turnout operation, he added, “Tactics are important, but if the voters are against you, it doesn’t matter what cool street name you give your turnout project, it’s not going to overcome anger among independents and apathy among your base.”
Turnout in the midterm elections was at its lowest level since 1942, a major point of concern for Democrats.
Experts note that the “boom-and-bust” Democratic coalition — a term used by Ronald Brownstein to note the great disparity between turnout in the presidential and midterm years — suggests 2014 might have little bearing on 2016 turnout.
The 36.4-percent turnout rate in November is yet another example of an American electorate that has all but given up on Washington and federal institutions.
Voters were upset and disillusioned in 2014, and experts warn of the deleterious effects that can have on Washington moving forward.
“The dramatic drop in turnout could be an anomaly. Or it could be new normal. Either way, it demonstrates that the lack of faith in the process and in politics is at an epic low,” said Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock. “And that’s bad for all of us in politics.”
4. Americans factor in the president when they vote for Congress.
Republicans across the country did everything they could to tie their opponents to Obama, whose low approval ratings — particularly in the South — proved costly to many in his party. Of the nine Republican Senate pickup states, only two — North Carolina and Iowa — gave Obama an approval rating of 40 or above, according to exit polls.
Those same exit polls show one-third of voters nationally said their House vote was meant to express opposition to Obama.
Democrats who thought they could out-run the president — pols like Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and Mark Begich, who thought their personal favorability could trump the national tide — were swept out because of high disapproval of Obama in red states.
“We know it intellectually, we say it frequently,” said Pollock, “but when you see how Democratic candidates did in places where we know the president’s numbers, it’s clear that they were linked.”
Pollock also argued that future occupants of the White House need to continue their “constant campaign” to boost their party in years when the president isn’t on the ballot.
5. The 2014 electorate may tell us very little about 2016.
Is the net 12-point drop in Hispanic support for Democratic House candidates in 2014 cause for concern in the upcoming presidential cycle? Have Republicans effectively fought to a draw among Asian voters, as they did in the 2014 exit poll?
The somewhat reductive, but still largely truthful, narrative is that there are two electorates in America. There’s the smaller, older, whiter electorate that gave Republicans big wins in 2010 and 2014; there’s the larger, younger, more diverse one that helped congressional Democrats and Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s tempting — and perhaps accurate — to suggest flatly that the 2014 election told Washington nothing it already doesn’t know.
Experts say, more precisely, that the Dual Electorate phenomenon simply makes identifying long-term voter shifts more difficult. Some experts, for example, warned that expecting young and minority voters to turn out in high numbers in 2016 ignores both Obama’s singular popularity among those groups and the Democratic Party’s declining popularity.
“Democratic turnout was so low in 2014 you can’t just attribute it to the midterm slump,” said political analyst Larry Sabato. “The energy is gone.”
Given the Dual Electorate pattern of the last several cycles, others say, betting either way is a risky proposition.
“2014 was a huge, important election, but it was not a representative cross-section of the country,” Cook said, warning against “extrapolating too much” from the results.
Or, as O’Connell put it, in a message to his party against getting overconfident heading into 2016: “Whatever happens in 2014 stays in 2014.”