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Democrats Can Overcome Their Midterm Fatalism—If They Get Over Themselves

Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

Just when Democrats were starting to feel somewhat less gloomy about their prospects in this fall’s midterm elections, there comes another downer poll, this one from the Washington Post and ABC, showing President Obama’s approval rating at an all-time low of 41 percent, down from 46 percent three months ago. “Obama’s low rating could be a significant drag on Democratic candidates this fall—past elections suggest that when approval ratings are as low as Obama’s, the president’s party is almost certain to suffer at the ballot box in November,” the Post intones.

But before Democrats swoon into another round of pearl-clutching, they would be well-advised to absorb the message in Sasha Issenberg’s striking cover story in the new issue of this magazine. The piece is, on the surface, a helpful explainer of the new political science findings on how midterm elections work, and in particular why Republicans have come to have such a built-in advantage in them.

Embedded in the piece, though, is a powerful exhortation for Democrats to overcome their natural tendency toward midterm fatalism. Put simply, even when things aren’t looking so great for the party, the mundane work of fundraising and campaign volunteering can still make a real difference in winning key races. But if Democrats allow their fatalism to keep their butts on the couch and checkbooks in the drawer, forget about it.

The piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but the nut of it is Issenberg’s account of the evolving understanding of why midterms have come to differ so much from presidential-year elections. Until not so long ago, the common assumption was that midterms often favored the party not holding the White House because many swing voters who had voted for the president found themselves disillusioned and wanted to issue a rebuke. This understanding of midterms, Issenberg notes, plays into the interest of the key players: politicians, “who tend to have an outsized sense of their persuasive powers, like to imagine elections as a grand debate before a riveted citizenry,” journalists “who are willing collaborators, eager to see themselves as chronicling a contest of conflicting ideas and narratives,” media consultants and pollsters who “set budgets and strategies tilted overwhelmingly toward swaying the existing electorate.”

But the swing-voters dynamic has been greatly overstated—even in the historic midterm “rebuke” sweep of 2010, fewer than six percent of 2008 voters went for the opposite party in their congressional vote two years later.  No, what is increasingly driving the gap between presidential and midterm elections is that they consist of two entirely different electorates:

There is the America that votes in presidential elections, which has helped Democrats win the popular vote in five out of the last six cycles and supports the view that Hillary Clinton can continue that streak should she run. Then there is the America that votes more regularly, casting ballots in both presidential and midterm years, which led to the Republican wave in 2010 and gives its party’s leaders reason to be so sanguine about their odds this time around.

There are about 127 million people in that first category, and among their number is the ascendant coalition—young and diverse, urban and mobile—that now gives Democrats a huge advantage in presidential races. But only 78 million of those people, or about 40 percent of the country’s voting-age population, belong to the group that goes to the polls every two years, and those regular voters carry a considerably more conservative cast.

The second group carries a more conservative cast because, over time, the characteristics that have long described more regular voters—older, white, homeowning—have come increasingly correlated with Republicans, while Democrats have gained with precisely those groups that have traditionally been less regular voters—the young, minorities, renters, unmarried women.

Seen one way, this is cause for great alarm for Democrats in a midterm year. But seen another way, it should be reason for optimism. Once the problem is understood, it can be addressed—and crucially, it is not an existential problem, but a practical one. The irregular voters—“unreliables,” in Issenberg’s lingo—do not need to be won over to the Democrats with some magically persuasive message. They are, for the most part, already inclined to support the party. They just need to be gotten to the polls in midterm years. And there is an increasingly strong grasp of how this can be done: not through brilliant ads seeking to fire up base voters, but through the more targeted and unflashy outreach of shrewdly-phrased direct mail and, best of all, door-to-door contact by campaign canvassers. Issenberg writes:

Such results undercut the popular belief that Unreliable voters are driven to the polls by passion—either about a given candidate or the general political climate. Pollsters imbue this so-called intensity gap with near-prophetic powers: In mid-October 2012, for instance, the Politico–George Washington University Battleground Poll reported that Republicans led Democrats by a ten-point margin among those calling themselves “extremely likely” to turn out. But that didn’t prevent Obama’s reelection, of course. Similar findings about this year’s midterms …will likewise reveal little about the returns come November. People cast ballots for reasons that have nothing to do with their excitement level. For Unreliable voters, specifically, it often takes a psychologically potent encounter to jolt them out of complacency.

The real challenge is that the efforts that have been proven to get Democratic voters to the polls even when the climate seems against the party—as in Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s 2010 reelection and Terry McAuliffe’s election as Virginia governor last fall—is that they take manpower and cost money, and that the people who supply both of those in presidential years need to get over their fatalism and do the same in midterm years. That is, the fatalism that is so damaging to Democrats resides less in the disillusioned voter who stays home on election day than it does in the donor or volunteer whose support could have gotten 10 or 100 or 1000 unreliable voters to the polls. Issenberg writes:

If Democrats fail to see midterms as sufficiently sexy, the problem may lie not with the party’s rank-and-file but with its donors and activists. The strategists engineering the party’s campaigns now have at their disposal databases containing the names of every Unreliable voter in the country, as well as guidance on where, how, and when they can be reached. (Democratic analysts have developed predictive models to anticipate which voters are most likely to actually open and read their mail.) Volunteers who live near those passive sympathizers can be dispatched; when in-person contact is unfeasible, carefully crafted letters can be sent instead. But all of these increasingly powerful tools also require money and manpower. This is why it’s not intensity scores on polls but rather the bustle of field offices and the sums on fund-raising reports that are the best guide to the Democrats’ midterm prospects. When those indicators sag, says Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director and chair of the Analyst Institute’s board, “the effects are cascading.” For a party populated with Unreliable voters, the midterm imperative is clear: Raise the dollars and secure the volunteer commitments. Then go and turn out those who are already on your side but won’t show up without a friendly nudge.

On Election Day in 2012, I tagged along for a few hours with canvassers from the AFL-CIO affiliate Working America who were going door-to-door in a working-class African-American neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. It became quickly apparent how superfluous this effort was: virtually every resident the canvassers spoke to had already voted, even though it was only early afternoon. As I was returning to my car, I ran into another canvasser going through the exact same neighborhood: a young man with the Obama campaign. This embarrassment of riches was duplicative and inefficient, but it did the trick: Obama won Ohio thanks in large part to astonishingly high black turnout.

Whether or not Democrats hold the Senate this year and win back some of the ground they lost in state capitals like Columbus will depend, in great part, on whether the party’s volunteers and donors can rouse themselves to get people back on those sidewalks—to get past their mood of the moment and the drumbeat of pessimism from the pundits to do the necessary work. It really is as simple as that.