Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What does it mean?

First things first. Its always important to admit when you were wrong. And I was wrong. I thought this midterm was going to me more of a tie than a wave. It was a wave.

With that clear, its time to look at what happened and develop the story about what it means. That's what almost everyone is doing today. I'll be no exception. But with these caveats: (1) the results of yesterdays election cannot be summed up as "one thing," in a country this large and diverse, its way more complicated than that and (2) developing an accurate story will take time. We still have a lot of information to digest and so our immediate responses are likely to be more emotional than factual.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the story Republicans will try to tell is that the results are a statement about the failure of President Obama. That's what they ran on - so that's what they will want us to believe. But that's not what midterm voters said. Exit pollsters asked the question: Was one reason for your vote today:
  • To express support for Barack Obama - 19%
  • To express opposition to Barack Obama - 33%
  • Barack Obama was not a factor - 45%
When Republicans try to tell that story - they're only speaking for their base (the 33%). 

I think there's some merit to the idea that - by distancing themselves from President Obama - Democrats diluted their policy message and fed into the Republican frame of "its all about Obama." Allison Lundgren-Grimes decided that she couldn't run on the benefits of Obamacare to voters in Kentucky because its..well...Obamacare.

But there's also a lot of conflicting data about that. For instance, in my home state of MN, I cringed as Senator Franklin became unintelligible during a debate with his opponent on issues like foreign policy and immigration because he was working so hard to avoid supporting President Obama's positions. And yet he won by 10%. In other words, it didn't seem to hurt him. 

I doubt you'll find anyone who makes a better case for blaming the media than BooMan
...the polls were way off, basically eight or nine points too favorable for the Democrats. We cannot explain this polling error by reference to bad messaging. Something deeply emotional was going on with the electorate that caused them to break sharply against the Democratic Party beginning around the time of the first beheading by ISIS and then turning again sharply against us in the last days of the election, possibly related to anxiety over the Ebola virus.

The media are how these images and fears were primarily transmitted to the voting public, although the Republicans also made it part of their campaigns.
As he goes on to say, this one is almost impossible to capture with data.
In yesterday's case, it may be that a lot of people simply were influenced by a pervasive environment of (essentially) media-induced terror and it caused their brains to go reptilian. There is plenty of research to support the fact that people gravitate to the right when they feel physically threatened. This process goes on on a subconscious level which is not conducive to verbal articulation.
But even as he uses the Wilder (or Bradley) Effect to explain this subconscious process, he fails to mention how the media-induced terror collaborates in the reptilian portion of our brains with the notion that President Obama "isn't really one of us," thereby heightening our distrust and fear. In other words, this is how racism played a role.

A place where we DO have data is in the story of turnout. The members of the Obama coalition who showed up came through and voted for Democrats. For example, African Americans voted for Democrats at the rate of 89%, Latinos 63%, women 56%, young people 54% and LGB 67%. The trouble is...not enough of them voted.
If Democrats were going to hold off a Republican tsunami, they needed their base voters to come out to the polls and pull the lever for the president’s party. That didn’t happen where Democrats needed it to. Especially with young voters. Nationally, Democratic base groups -- young voters, single women, African-Americans and Latinos -- posted numbers that looked more like the Democrats’ 2010 midterm “shellacking” than Obama’s 2012 re-election victory. Most strikingly, voters 18-29 nationwide were only 13% of the electorate in 2014 (compared with 22% for GOP-leaning seniors.) In the 2010 midterms, young voters made up 12% of the voting public. In contrast, during Obama’s re-election victory in 2012, 19% of the electorate was under 30.
In the end, this is something Democrats MUST find a way to counter. Jonathan Cohn takes a pretty deep dive into the structural challenges.
A cardinal fact of American politics that has emerged during the Obama years is that demographic forces are slowly and inexorably driving the electorate leftward. But the Republican Party has its own corresponding advantages. Its voters turn out for elections reliably, not just in spasms of quadrennial excitement. They are dispersed efficiently in rural and exurban House districts, and reside disproportionately in the states that have disproportionate representation in the Senate. All these things give the Republican coalition, even as it remains unable to muster a presidential majority, unassailable control of Congress.
At this moment I don't have a lot by way of answers to these challenges. Let's just start by recognizing that simply pointing the finger at President Obama (who was actually able to expand the electorate when he was on the ballot) is self-defeating as well as wrong.

If you've read this far, let me point out that what I've said up until now is a pretty good example of yet another challenge that Democrats face. What I'm describing is a complex set of circumstances that contributed to "the Republican wave." It certainly doesn't provide hysterical link bait or an inspirational statement that will fit on a bumper sticker. It just happens to be a pretty comprehensive view of the political reality that is in the process of unfolding. So sue me :-)

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