Monday, November 10, 2014

Lessons Learned: 2014 Midterm Post-Mortem

At the end of every Godfather movie there was a point when Michael Corleone's enemies, wrongly believing that the Corleone power was destroyed, learned the hard way that Michael's reach was long and that he had no use for mercy. Michael's antagonists never saw the purge coming. Although unlike the Corleone rivals, the White House and Democratic elected officials knew that a midterm defeat was likely, I don't think that they fully anticipated the depth and breadth of what went down. In fact, this was beyond even Corleone capacities. This was some Breaking Bad stuff. Across the country Democrats were shanked in the shower, thrown off balconies and beaten in the head with barbells. And only a few lived to tell the tale. This was a loss of historic, almost biblical proportions. The Republicans almost swept the field. There are more Republicans in the House of Representatives than any time since the 1920s. There will be 31 Republican governors. Republicans took back most of the South with a vengeance and made electoral gains in Midwest or Eastern states previously considered to be solid blue. Although Senator Landrieu of Louisiana survived to fight another day, the fact that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is pulling funding for Louisiana political commercials suggests that they don't think her chances for reelection in a runoff are very good.

Whether you win or lose a contest you always reveal something about yourself. You should learn something that you didn't know before. What do I think that the Democrats should learn from this debacle? Well there are a number of things that ought to be, if not taken for gospel, given greater consideration by current or would be elected Democratic politicians.

Men vote too. Their worldview matters. A Democratic party that can't figure out how to win the male vote or a Democratic party that snarks that an election is not legitimate because the opposition did really well among men is not a party that will do well in midterms. And it may not even do that well in a Presidential election, given skillful enough opposition candidates.  The gender gap cuts both ways. If we can criticize Republicans for not appealing enough to women then we should also ding Democrats for not appealing enough to men, especially white men. The gender gap is also a gap in perspectives between white and non-white women and married and single women. The "war on women" rhetoric plays well to the feminist or single women base in Democratic primaries. It's extremely useful when a Republican says something stupid about rape, women, abortion or sexism. But feminists or single women are not the only voters. Women are not single issue voters any more than men are. In a year when Republicans were disciplined enough to avoid saying too many overtly sexist things and co-opted some Democratic talking points on contraception, suggesting that every Republican is a misogynist who wants to return to the year 1954 didn't work. Don't believe me? Ask Wendy Davis or Mark Udall. Wendy Davis lost the female vote while Udall won it but badly lost the male vote.
It is possible to have many liberal views on economic and social issues and win election without utterly alienating the male voter. In Michigan Gary Peters did this in his victorious campaign for the open US Senate seat. He won 50% of all men and 44% of white men. Other Democrats might want to see if his tactics can be copied and adapted to other locations. The Democratic Party must stop the bleeding among men, primarily white men, if it wants to regain Congress.

Nothing is inevitable. We heard a lot about the browning of the electorate and how this would mean permanent Democratic majorities. Not so fast. All politics is local. Some Republicans (John Kasich) won enough non-white voters to build convincing majorities. Kasich won 26% of the black vote. Non-white Republicans like Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mia Long won election with electorates that were overwhelmingly white. And overall Republicans did better than expected with Asian, Hispanic and to a lesser extent Black voters. Nationally about 50% of Asian Americans voted Republican. Sam Brownback won 47% of the Hispanic vote in Kansas while in Texas Greg Abbott won 44% of the Hispanic vote, an improvement over Rick Perry's performance of 38% in 2010. Overall about 10% of Black voters voted for Republicans. This would suggest that, with the exception of clinically insane conservatives like Kamau Bakari, who lost, there may be effective Republican or conservative competition for non-white voters, who still preferred Democrats, but appeared to be open to some Republican messages. Younger voters did not support Democratic candidates as much as they did previously. This could be a blip, a ghost in the machine. But it could presage some trouble for Democrats in 2016. It depends on how elected Republicans govern and legislate. If Republicans find that the masks of respectability and responsibility are bad fits and go crazy trying to shut the government down or make women seeking abortion get vaginal probes, then we could see a Democrat win convincingly in 2016.
President Obama's coattails were short. Because President Obama's approval ratings were so low among likely voters in the midterm elections, many Republican candidates did everything they could to link their opponents to President Obama while many of their Democratic counterparts did everything they could to distance themselves from President Obama. The President was evidently peeved about this Democratic strategy, saying that although he was not on the ballot, his policies certainly were. His former adviser David Axelrod said that this statement was a mistake. The election results agree. Some argue that if Democratic candidates had fully embraced President Obama then they would have won. It's possible, though counterfactuals are hard to prove. Democratic candidates in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maryland appeared with the President or First Lady. And they lost. So if candidates in what were blue states went down to defeat why would anyone expect Democrats in red states to lovingly embrace the President? If they had done so they might have lost by even greater margins. Framing this as solely Democratic cowardice or incompetence doesn't give us the whole answer. Plenty of people were upset with the direction of the nation, with President Obama and with Democrats. And they voted.

Labor continues losing. What remains of organized labor in this country made it a priority to go after anti-labor Republicans like Scott Walker, (Wisconsin), Nathan Deal (Georgia), Rick Scott (Florida),  Sam Brownback (Kansas), and Bruce Rauer (Illinois). Labor lost all of those fights. This was disappointing if you support organized labor. When people openly hostile to the very idea of unions are getting elected or re-elected in places like Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan(!!!!) there is to put it mildly a very serious problem. What is frustrating is that labor's tactics and organizing skills should be a template for reviving the progressive movement in this country. At its best the labor movement focuses on workers' commonalities. I have a friend who's a New York Italian Catholic. Culturally I would say he's conservative though he would protest that. He voted for Reagan as a young man but voted for Obama in 2008. I think one reason he's at least open to Democratic messages is because he worked in unionized industries and was a union leader. So even though he definitely won't co-sign all of the Democratic talking points about evil white patriarchs who are oppressing transgendered women who want taxpayer funded abortions and contraception, he votes Democratic more often than not because his union experiences predisposed him to look out for the working man. But if Democrats continue to make him think that his very identity is illegitimate, well eventually New York City will have another reliably Republican voter. Unions (and Democrats) need to rebuild and rebrand their core economic message of helping the working man and woman. Show and tell. I think Democrats and unions lost in part because of the economy which is the last point.

The economy is not good. It's all very well to point to lower unemployment, a higher stock market and higher corporate profits. But wages are stagnant or dropping and labor force participation remains low, though it recently rose slightly. Many people do not feel secure in their jobs, businesses or income. The NYT belatedly recognized this fact. Democrats had no overarching economic message which could simultaneously point to a bad (Republican) past and a good (Democratic) future. I'm not a huge fan of the PPACA. I think the results so far have been mixed. But because conservatives and Republicans were so vociferously against it, Democrats were unable to talk about any good that was done by the law, even in places like Kentucky, where some portions of the law have been so popular that even Senator McConnell backed off the "kill it" mantra. Voters did not believe that Democratic candidates had any good ideas. Abortion, birth control and pay equity are important issues. But overall economic policy is also an important issue. Democrats lost sight of that and paid the price. Even now, the President is talking about legalizing millions of illegal immigrants. I don't think this is the right thing to do. But whether it is or isn't the President and Congressional Democrats have not made the argument on how this would work to American citizens' economic benefit. People vote their pocketbook. Democratic candidates for 2016 would be wise to take heed of this.

None of this should be construed as to downplay the fact that a significant proportion of Republicans are strongly motivated by racial hatred. That's never going to change. It's America. Politics is the art of convincing people that you will best represent their interests. I know for a fact that in 2008 and even in 2012 some racists voted for Obama. They thought, their racial issues aside, that the other guy was worse. Can a Democratic candidate get their vote in 2016?
Exit Polls

What are your thoughts?

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