Democrats have suffered spectacularly under President Obama. When Obama took office his party controlled the majority of the nation’s 98 legislative chambers (Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral Senate), 29 gubernatorial mansions, held 59 Senate Seats and 257 seats in Congress. After the 2015 elections, Republicans controlled 32 governorships, over 2/3rds of the nation’s legislative chambers, 54 seats in the Senate and a whopping 247 seats in Congress.
It is tempting to blame the most liberal President in US history for the party’s down-ballot weakness. It is even more tempting to see a correlation between his policies and their embrace by the national party as Democrats downfall. But, in truth, the blame should rest on several variables. The base that first elected Obama forced Democrats to run hard to the left in midterms and then not show up and vote when their candidates attempt to appeal to the needed middle (ironically, Republicans have this problem in Presidential elections).
The Democratic base’s absence did not just occur in the midterms. However, it was more pronounced. Voter turnout dropped from 131 million in 2008, to 125 million in 2012. Most of that drop-off came from Obama’s vote-share. In 2014, turnout in Congressional races dropped from 86 million to 79 million. In Nevada’s gubernatorial and legislative races, turnout in some counties and districts dropped by MORE than 50 percent (this drop is largely attributed to low Latino turnout)!
Certainly, Obama has not helped his party in midterms. The Stimulus, Obamacare and Cash for Clunkers were all death-knells to dozens of white, Southern Democrats. But these Democrats were already living on borrowed time. Many other Democrats also did not need to vote for the bill yet did so anyway because they needed their base in November. The result was massacres at the state and Congressional level as the economy was sidelined for a litany of liberal pet projects.
It’s notable that Democrats who ran from Obama actually found success in 2012. They visibly argued with the President’s policies and won key Senate and gubernatorial races in red states. But, in the midterms such a distancing has been non-existent. Take the case of former Senator Kay Hagan in purple North Carolina. She openly agreed with the President’s DREAM act allowing millions of illegals to stay in the country. Such a move was tone-deaf compared to what the majority of the state’s voters wanted, and despite running a stellar campaign against an unpopular opponent, she lost.
This has not just occurred in red states. Take these 3 cases; the 2010 Michigan gubernatorial contest and Iowa and Colorado Senate races in 2014. In Michigan, the GOP elected a non-objectionable businessman in Rick Snyder. He ran against a former union official, Verg Bernero, who campaigned on writing union dues into the state Constitution (the effort would fail by referendum in 2012). He had the worst Democratic performance for a gubernatorial candidate in the state in over 50 years.
In 2014, Democrats nominated Bruce Braley to run for Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat. Republican’s choice, Joni Ernst, certainly was no moderate, but unlike Braley she did not hail from a liberal district and was able to position Braley as being out of step with the state’s electorate. In Colorado, Democratic Senator Mark Udall ran on one of the most pro-choice platforms in the country, ever. He won liberals and women by a large majority. He lost everybody else.
Further, demographic and political changes might be benefiting the party in Presidential contests but it has not trickled down into midterm elections. The realignment of the South has now completely eliminated every single Southern, white Democratic Congressman outside of Florida. The party controls a single legislature, Kentucky, by 3 House seats. Outside of Louisiana the party does not control a single gubernatorial perch in the Deep South (outside of Medicaid Expansion, Louisiana’s Governor, Jon Bel Edwards, behaves like a moderate Republican). This contrasts with Democrats controlling the majority of state legislatures and Congressional districts in the South as recently as 2008.
Of course, individual variables within the states mattered as well. In the three biggest gubernatorial upsets of 2014 (Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois), a combination of weak Democratic nominees and governmental incompetence gave the GOP candidates a chance to contrast their fiscal competence with that of the inept leadership of their opponents. Third-party candidates mattered as well. In Maine, Paul Lepage has won both his races by plurality. Regarding the state legislatures, Republicans in concert with ALEC, the Club for Growth, and others has laid the groundwork for enduring success in legislative races.
Considering these factors, it is clear that Obama has not helped his party. However, he is not solely responsible for their significant weakening either. A confluence of demographic and political variables has led to the elimination of Democrats in the South outside of majority-minority districts. Incompetent leadership and candidates in purple (Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, etc.) and blue states (Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois) alike has led to suburban voters turning to the GOP in state level contests. Finally, low turnout among the Democratic leaning and base voters has cost them in rapidly diversifying states (NV in particular). None of these factors can be laid solely at President Obama’s feet. He could have helped his party, but he certainly is not responsible for its current doldrums in the states and in Congress.