So Democrats are still debating what happened in last week’s “shellacking.” Two camps have emerged.
Some Democrats think voters punished them for deploying too much government, too quickly, in too many areas beyond the economy. As the old Grateful Dead song goes, “Maybe you had too much, too fast.” These “Shakedown Street” Democrats are led by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a Blue Dog who has been barking his way to retirement, and they want to pare down federal spending and work more with Republicans.
Then there are Democrats spoiling for the fight that President Barack Obama never had. Obama’s many compromises enervated the base, depressed turnout and, these Democrats argue, helped tie the party closer to Wall Street than Main Street. Led by the progressive firebrand Adam Green, these strategists want to double down after the election.
By playing Goldilocks – aiming for more than the incrementalists’ cold soup, but telling progressives their porridge was too hot – Obama wound up disappointing both sides.
But who is right about what actually went down?
A week later, we have enough data to see that the Blue Dogs are right about campaign strategy in some conservative districts – but they greatly overstate their case. The Bold Progressives, to borrow a term from Green’s homepage, are right about aggressively mobilizing their way to victory. That tack may not be viable, however, in every region.
Now for the evidence. These groups often talk past each other, because they are focused on different voter universes.
On Shakedown Street, they mourn the heavy losses in swing districts. There is no Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), explains MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, without a corps of victorious Blue Dogs. Meanwhile, liberals long for the voters who stayed home.
Let’s start with swing seats. More than half of the House GOP’s gains came from districts that John McCain won in 2008, where Democrats were playing defense. Here, there is only mixed evidence that bucking Obama’s agenda helped Democrats survive.
Take the 36 McCain districts that Republicans won. Exactly half of these losing Democrats backed TARP and health care, and half opposed those measures. It was a wash.
For the 11 Democrats who held McCain seats, half backed TARP – another wash. However, nine of those Democratic winners voted against health care. So while plenty of health care foes went down, most of the Democrats who survived a rough cycle in these conservative areas opposed Obama’s signature domestic achievement. In McCain districts, you were better off being seen as a Blue Dog than a blue vote.
What about the rest of the GOP’s gains?
The other motherload of swing seats were held by Wave Democrats, who won in the blue cascades of 2006 and 2008. Thirty-four of the seats that Republicans won were reclaimed from these recently red neighborhoods. (Some of these areas overlap with McCain districts, of course.)
But there is surprising news for the Beltway: Eleven of the 14 Wave Democrats who won backed health care — a higher share than Democrats who lost wave districts. About 79 percent of Democratic victors in these tough areas took the tough vote with Obama. Seventy-one percent of losing Democrats backed health care.
This data undercuts the idea that all Democrats in competitive areas have to oppose government, or Obama, to win.
At a minimum, it suggests they can win regardless. While one midterm does not make a trend, the results show that in these wave swing districts – in contrast to McCain Country – new Democrats can do better by standing strong than splitting differences.
This granularity is usually lost in our political narrative. That’s because many commentators lump all swing districts together, though the numbers suggest subtle, diverging politics.
If being a proud Democrat works in (some) swing districts, then how does it work on the base?
We know many Obama voters stayed home, because the enthusiasm gap topped 5 points. Obama was elected by 7 points nationally, but midterm voters were split evenly between him and McCain.
In places where Obama voters still turned out last week, however, Democrats usually benefited.
Sounds logical, but it’s not automatic, since last election’s Obama voters could have turned on his party. It’s worth remembering, however, that every time you hear pundits say voters “changed” their minds it’s a stretch, since the midterms were caused by an altered electorate, not a major shift in actual preferences from 2008.
But back to the blue. The Democratic senators who did beat the tide managed to turn out a good chunk of the loyal based from 2008.
In Washington state, Patty Murray, a reliable liberal who opposed the Iraq war, mobilized an electorate that voted for Obama by 13 points.
Michael Bennet, a political neophyte who led the public option fight in the Senate, turned out Colorodans who backed Obama by 4 points.
Bennet is especially instructive because he won a tight race by consolidating his base, drawing 89 percent of Obama voters — a crucial 3 points higher than his opponent’s share of McCain voters. Indeed, had the Republican simply matched Bennet’s partisan pull of 89 percent, he would have drawn 20,000 more votes and won the race. Bennet won by 16,000 votes.
There is a caveat for Wisconsin, where the midterm electorate favored Obama by 6 points, but a striking 15 percent of those Obama voters voted against liberal Russ Feingold. As always, turnout is not enough when they turn on you.
Overall, the enthusiasm gap was largest in targeted states from 2008. That’s because the midterms were “an aligning election” where partisan trends matter more than incumbency, as statistician Nate Silver documents, and because no one matched the turnout operation of the 2008 Obama Campaign. Remnants of that program were rolled into the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America, which boasted 80 million calls and door-knocks during the midterms.
Ask any field organizer, though, and they’ll tell you it helps to have something motivating to call about. In a few regions, it is clear that bolder and newer Democrats did turn out more voters than a mixed message about the Obama agenda. In most of McCain Country, it was still too much, too fast.
So for this year’s intramural debates, both camps have some valid points. Looking to 2012 strategy, however, the partisan Democrats are probably more relevant.
Turning again to Silver, who has one of the best crystal balls in this imprecise business, we see that playing defense will soon be a numerical priority for Republicans. House Democrats have only 12 McCain districts left to “defend,” he explains, while “Republicans have 55 where [Obama] took the majority.”
One probably can’t mobilize those Obama voters to boot Republicans, of course, by running as a pale, periwinkle, diet incarnation of the GOP. Like Murray and Bennet, challengers in those areas will probably come home again — and run as Obama-backing Democrats.