Recently, President Obama lamented in an interview that aired Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week,” that if he had shown up more Democrats would have done better last November. The President offered some commentary on the state of affairs of the party and the nation, stating “”I couldn’t be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander in chief and president of the United States.” Interestingly enough, somehow every other prior President has managed it.
It has been well documented the Democratic Party has been decimated under Obama. Since 2009 when the party held a majority of the nation’s governorships and legislatures, 59 Senate seats and 257 House seats, their losses have been extensive. They have lost over 1,000 legislative seats, surrendered 11 Senate seats and 63 House seats (including 2016’s results). Additionally, the party only has unified control in 5 states compared to the GOP’s commanding 25.
But, Obama’s comments do bring up an interesting hypothetical. Would the party have done better if the President had campaigned more? Certainly, there is evidence to at least make it plausible. The President was well above 50 percent approval in the waning days of the Presidential contest and the economy was improving. Indeed, Obama will leave office on a high note (near 60 percent approval in some polls).
But, of course the President was not on the ballot in November. Obviously, some of the public’s approval was based on the fact he was not running for reelection (and two flawed candidates were). Additionally, the very nature of our individualized electoral system makes it dubious Obama could have swung many many races.
Take for example where Clinton and Trump found their support. Clinton found solid support among many of Obama’s constituencies, women, minorities and the young. Trump, on the other hand, actually gobbled up some former white, Obama voters in the Midwest.
Considering Clinton won many traditionally Republican suburban districts (TX and VA for example) , yet Republicans held down-ballot offices it is hard to see how Obama would have changed this dynamic. Similarly, it is hard to see how Obama would have been able to break the correlation between Trump/Clinton statewide victories and D/R Senate candidates victories or losses.
Where Obama might have been able to help Clinton, and by extension, down-ballot Democrats, would have been in boosting turnout in college towns and cities in the Midwest. Except, anecdotal reports from unbiased election reporting showed minorities were unenthused about Clinton even though they knew Obama fully supported her. Additionally, young college age voters in the states that swung the election to Trump (WI, MI, PA and OH) were far more GOP leaning than they had been in the past.
Exit polls show Trump won 20 percent of voters who approved of the President and 9 percent of voters who identified as liberal. He won a solid 83 percent of the 39 percent of the electorate who rated “change” as the most important criteria in their vote. Many of these voters were found in the West and in swing states nationally. They could also be found in Maine. These voters already liked the President and voted for Trump anyway. A desire for change trumped (no pun intended) Obama’s desire for them to vote for the status qup in Clinton.
So, unless the President is saying that his showing up in the Midwest would have helped Clinton his assertion is more egotistical than anything else. Indeed, final election returns show Democrats did not have a drop-off nationally. Because of her 2.85 million popular vote win, Clinton actually won more voters than Obama in 2012 and the second most votes in US history (Trump finished with 4th most overall).
Clinton’s drop-off was in the Midwest, particularly among minorities, and in the South where she could have had every minority vote and she still would have lost the region. It is hard to see the President juicing 100 percent of all minorities to turn out. Arguably, minorities already had all the reasons they needed to show up. Trump’s stances on crime, illegal immigration and welfare should have been enough.
If one breaks down the map of successes and failures for both parties the odds of Obama helping his party gets worse. As mentioned above, Clinton did well in traditionally GOP, affluent districts. In Texas for example she won a swing district and two suburban GOP districts. Those suburban GOP districts though are full of voters that probably disapprove of the President. Additionally, in the swing districts Clinton won nationally, Republicans outran their nominee by massive margins. This was particularly true in California. Clinton won seven of the 14 GOP controlled districts in the state and yet every single Republican Congressional candidate won.
California turnout was a whopping 75 percent of registered voters. It is hard to see how Democrats would have done better if Obama had campaigned more. Similarly, if you cannot win close districts despite winning the only contested statewide race by 4 million votes, it seems who campaigns is irrelevant.
This is not to say the President could not have been more involved. He certainly could have. However, even the Clinton campaign did not want his help until the very end because they knew he was still toxic to many Republican voters and these were the voters Clinton was targeting to get her over the top. Still, a sitting President is the standard-bearer of his party and he certainly could have done more with or without Clinton’s blessing.
This is all water under the bridge however. The election is over. The GOP controls the Presidency, Congress and almost every region except the coasts and Hawaii. In a bid to cement his legacy President Obama is now working to help the party build a strategy for legislative success in preparation for redistricting. It is true redistricting has helped the GOP cement control of power but so has the party fielding such strong candidates in purple territory.
Maybe the President can help his party rebuild. Maybe Democrats can find some success this year and in 2018 to help them rebuild in preparation for 2020 and beyond. But, it is unclear if the President would have been able to help his party much last year. The President and his advisors are smart enough to know this. Thus, the President boasting such a thing is more about fulfilling his own ego than having a firm basis in reality.