If President Barack Obama's campaign was known for anything in 2012, it was its voter mobilization operation, said to be the most sophisticated ever assembled in a presidential campaign. Which makes David Plouffe's comments over the weekend all the more telling for Democrats as they look nervously toward the November elections.
When Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in Florida's 13th Congressional District a week ago, Democratic leaders explained away the outcome by arguing that the district tilted heavily in favor of the GOP in midterm and especially special elections. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, claimed that Republicans had a 13-point turnout advantage, and said Democrats had made up almost all of that ground, only to fall a few points short.
Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager in 2008 and oversaw the 2012 campaign as White House senior adviser, put the onus back on the Democrats. Democrats lost because they couldn't get enough of their voters — the ones who backed Obama in 2012 — to the polls. Plouffe called the loss a “screaming siren” for the fall. As he put it, “We have a turnout issue.”
Districts like Florida's 13th may look more Republican in off-year elections than in presidential years, but as Plouffe pointed out, that's because Democrats have a turnout problem in those midterm elections. The Democrats' coalition includes groups of voters who are simply less likely to show up in midterm elections. Younger voters turn out at lower rates in midterm elections than older voters. Single women are less likely to vote than married women.
At the beginning of each midterm election cycle, Democrats vow to do a better job of getting their voters to the polls. But when history (a president's party generally loses seats in midterm elections) and the political winds are blowing in the wrong direction, they've fallen short.
That was the case in 2010, when Republicans won historic gains in the House just two years after Obama and the Democrats celebrated his 2008 victory as a sign that the pendulum was swinging permanently in their direction.
After the government shutdown, Democrats said to themselves that the Republicans were in such poor shape that the House could actually change hands with the 2014 elections. No one is suggesting that today, which may be one reason such longtime Democratic stalwarts as Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.) have decided to retire. Republicans are favored to hold their House majority, and Democrats today are looking mainly at holding down their losses.
The Senate is another story. Former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press” that Democrats should worry that the electorate in November will look more like it did in 2010 than in 2012. If that's the case, he said, the Senate is definitely in danger of turning Republican. “If we lose the Senate, turn out the lights,” he said, “because the party's over.”
Democrats have a turnout problem because they have a motivation problem. In 2010, their biggest problem was that they ran into an energized Republican electorate. The rise of the tea party and hostility to Obama's health-care law brought Republicans to the polls while Democrats stayed home. Obama's vaunted political operation seemed powerless in the face of that aroused opposition.
What Democrats learned in 2010 was that Obama's personal appeal was not transferrable to Democrats running for the House or Senate. Plouffe and others said at the time that it was essential for Democratic candidates to develop their own relationships with voters and not hope to rely solely on the Obama organization to turn out voters. Some did, many did not.
There is a companion problem confronting Democrats this year, which is dissatisfaction in their ranks. Obama has disappointed many of his own followers, and his overall approval ratings are low enough to give Democrats real concern. The lack of enthusiasm for the president among members of his own party can easily lead to demoralization and too many stay-at-home voters in November.
Republicans again are motivated by their dislike of Obama's health-care law and by the prospect of taking full control of Congress. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday morning that Obamacare is “total poison” for Democratic candidates this year.
More than enough Senate seats are now in play to put the Democrats in obvious danger of losing their majority. Many of the most vulnerable seats are in states that Obama lost in 2012, which makes his ability to help those candidates — beyond fundraising — extremely limited.
The president can attempt to frame this coming election as a choice, not a referendum, as he was able to do in 2012 against Mitt Romney. But what works for his overall coalition could be less effective with electorates in red states. He can press ahead with initiatives designed to motivate core parts of his coalition — on things, such as climate change or social issues — but will those work as effectively in Senate races in red states as in a national election?
Democratic campaigns will have many of the same tools the Obama campaign used in 2012, but tools alone are not sufficient without a motivated electorate. That's why Plouffe and others have begun to sound the alarms.