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Winning elections and losing power

Democrats have been touting the fact that demographics are on their side, and that future elections are stacked in their favor. Younger and non-white voters tend to vote for Democrats, while Republicans tend to be older and whiter than average. As the demographics of the country shift, Democrats should benefit.

The argument makes sense, but as is often the case, reality is quite a bit more complicated.

In fact, under President Barack Obama the Democratic Party has taken an enormous electoral beating, and support for it is at or near historic lows in legislatures and statewide elective offices. The tallies from the latest elections are not in as I write this, but as of late October Democrats had lost over 900 state legislators, 70 members of the House of Representatives, 13 Senate seats, 30 state legislative chambers, and 11 governor’s offices. Losses in 2014 were so bad that the national Democratic Party did a postmortem to figure out what went wrong.

Two-term presidencies always present a problem to the party in power, but losses under Obama have been particularly grave. According to Politifact, losses under Obama have been twice the historical norm. And this month’s elections only made things worse for Democrats.

None of these losses actually undermine the analysis that Democrats have a built in advantage in presidential elections. They may indeed. Just as in Minnesota, Democrats have a substantial advantage in statewide elections: Not a single Minnesota constitutional office is held by a Republican, and none has been since Tim Pawlenty left office.

But what it does mean is that Democrats are having and will have a very difficult time governing by the traditional means of lawmaking and deal-making — and we have seen exactly that at both the state and federal level. Democrats can regulate, pass executive orders, stack the deck in administrative matters, and of course obstruct Republicans from achieving their aims. All this adds up to quite a bit of power exercised through the executive branch — but they are losing the ability to govern by the normal means in our divided republican form of government.

Is it really possible that Democrats are gaining a national electoral advantage while at the same time losing actual political power? And if so, how and why is that happening?

Well, first of all, we should look at the elections that Democrats have been winning, and where they have the best chance to win in the future. Most obviously the map for the presidency has been tilting in the Democrats’ favor. Democrats tend to win urban areas handily, while Republicans win exurban and rural areas. In national elections that means a presidential candidate can win all the electoral votes of a state by racking up enormous margins in a few urban areas. Yet a congressman who wins with 80 percent or more of the vote is no more elected than one who gets 50 percent plus 1. A lot of those urban votes are “wasted,” meaning that if they had been distributed differently, Democrats would have won more seats in Congress.

Also, many of those voters only come out in presidential elections or very high-profile statewide elections. The voters aren’t terribly engaged, and have to be poked, prodded, cajoled, or even scared to the polls. They dutifully come out during presidential elections, but often just don’t care that much about down-ballot races. They are not political junkies, and often tend to be cynics about government — a cynicism that has only been fueled by what they see as the disappointing results of electing Obama as president. Things were supposed to get better, and for many people things have stayed the same or gotten worse. Perhaps if Obamacare had lived up to its promises things would have been different, but only the most dedicated Democrat partisan sees it as a raging success. Hence Democrats stimulate high voter turnouts by promoting the idea that Republicans want to recreate slavery or reinstate (the Democrat-imposed) Jim Crow laws.

So quite a few of those voters are no longer coming to the polls out of enthusiasm for Democrats, but rather out of fear that Republicans don’t like them and will harm their prospects. Sometimes that works as a motivating force, but apparently not nearly often enough to deny Republicans enormous political victories in down-ballot elections. And, likely as not, the power of demonizing Republicans will wear off at some point.

The result of these competing trends is that Democrats have been losing their political bench in most states and nationally. It is striking that the only Democrat candidates for president are two relatively old folks — one a political legacy, the other a crotchety socialist senator from Vermont. While Republican debates are getting record ratings, with tens of millions of people watching, the Democrats’ debate had 30 percent fewer viewers. The presumptive Democrat nominee isn’t even much liked by her own party.

President Obama’s election does show that a deep bench is not necessary to put up a winning candidate. If a first-term senator can win, then experience isn’t the only metric that counts. But a deep bench of political talent is a prerequisite for having a governing majority. And as things stand now, Democrats are a long way from having power outside the executive branch of the federal government.

David Strom is principal at Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. 

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