Before Democrats get giddy over recent news about Obamacare they should consider the fact their political base is still not excited about 2014. This as the White House and Congressional Democrats have brought up equal pay, race and civil rights to appeal to their ideological core.
The latest evidence of a lack of Democratic excitement can be found in two local races; a house race in Connecticut and a city council race in Arlington, Virginia. Courtesy of the National Review, “Democrats lost their first election for the five-member Arlington County Board in 15 years when John Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent, won a vacancy on the board with 58 percent of the county-wide vote. Vihstadt assembled an impressive coalition that spanned party lines and included endorsements from the local Democratic prosecutor and the chairman of the Green party.”
In Connecticut, Republican Tami Zawistowski captured a state-house seat from the Democrats with a resounding 58 percent of the vote. The district is a swing seat, having voted narrowly for Romney in 2012. Under old lines, Obama carried it in 2008.
Democratic concerns with a turnout drop-off are nothing new. In fact, Obama recently mentioned his party base tends to not turn out in midterms, “They are not sexy.” But recent events combined with shaky Democratic turnout since the start of 2013 points to significant problems for the party come November. Consider that Obama carried unmarried women with over 60% of the vote in 2012. While Democrats maintain an advantage among this group on average, in generic ballot tests, that margin has shrunk to garnering around 58% of their vote and the percentage of the electorate they make up is smaller than 2012.
Consider as well that in November 2013, even as Democrats were carrying all statewide, Constitutional offices in Virginia they gained a mere one seat in the House of delegates. Ironically, they lost one of theirs making the election a net draw in the House. In other words, Republicans maintained their legislative edge largely because they won swing and moderate suburbs in NoVA. Democrats did not win statewide races due to turnout as some reports have suggested. Rather, Democrats won statewide because they carried rich suburban voters while their legislative candidates did not. Democrats also suffered a significant drop-off from 2012 even as McAuliffe’s campaign used Obama data to target the base. That same night, a special election was held in Washington State’s competitive 26th state senate district to replace an outgoing Democrat. Republican Jan Angel won by 3%.
The evidence of problems for the party does not end there. Both Virginia Democratic candidates for Lt. Governor and Attorney General were state senators. Both came from solidly Democratic districts. Both special elections saw the results go down to the wire as replacement Democrats won by a handful of votes in both races.
The most prominent example was FL-13. Former Congressman Bill Young’s death left his purple seat open. Republicans nominated a so-so candidate while Democrats got their dream candidate. The result was the Republican Bill Jolly winning by a surprise 2% when every poll had him trailing on election night. A map provided here shows the change in voting percentage by precinct in the district from 2012 to 2014.
Democrats nationally have thrown out a smorgasbord of issues their base should love; equal pay, abortion, race, and most recently delaying the Keystone Pipeline. It is too soon to tell if these issues can motivate turnout but for Democrats sake they better hope they do. Interesting enough, for the most part national polls do not seem to reflect the depressed nature of the party’s base. Rather, the GOP is doing well because they are running well with moderates and Independents (just like in 2010).
In 2010, turnout dropped from 39% Democratic to 37%, Republican turnout increased and the result was a resounding 63 seat gain in the House for the party (not to mention massive gains in state races). Democrats cannot afford a similar scenario this cycle fighting on such unfriendly turf. Worrisome for the party is polls are not reflecting this meaning the party cannot be sure polls showing several endangered incumbents ahead are accurate or not.
Notably, GOP gains have come in special elections in different states. Each state is different and special elections are fickle things compared to a regular, November election. They are on weird days and do not carry the weight of a Presidential election (or a midterm). But today, with so much money being poured into any race it is noticeable that Democrats cannot gin up excitement among their base for even a Congressional race. Democrats should be worried, even if they feel the political environment is moving back in their direction.