Why Republicans Won the Election and Dems Flopped
There is no one, soundbite-ready answer to why the Republicans did so well in the 2014 election. As a political scientist I can provide a few obvious answers, but as I see it the big answer is more complex. I’ll get to that in a moment. First, the obvious answers:
Simple math: Republicans had less turf to defend. Democrats had more turf to defend, creating more opportunities for Republicans to pick them off. In 2016, the tables turn and Democrats have fewer seats to defend, though for reasons I’ll get to later I wouldn’t count on it making a big difference.
Voter registration laws: The Republicans need conservative white voters to dominate elections. Remove as many brown, black, and urban voters as possible, and tight elections swing to Team Red. And that’s what happened in 2014. Voter ID laws and voter registration purges did exactly what they were intended to do. Fewer voters inclined to vote for Democrats were allowed to vote.
Republican Gerrymandering: In 2010, Republicans took over several state legislatures and redrew voting precinct maps to lump Democrat-dominated voting precincts together. In those districts Democrats win by landslides, but in other districts there are fewer Democrat voters, giving Republicans a better chance of winning tight races. Republicans know they don’t have to win by a landslide. They only have to get one more vote than the other side.
Dark money: The Republican-dominated Supreme Court decided that individuals can spend as much money as they want to influence elections. In 2014, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by shadowy political groups funded by billionaires that tend to favor Republicans. Dark money buys elections, especially close ones. Dark money is the main factor that tipped the Senate to Republicans.
But beyond those reasons looms the biggest one of all, and it’s bound to come into play in the next election and beyond. Basically, Democrats are not giving their voters many reasons to vote for them. Democrats are no longer Democrats, they are moderate Republicans.
President Obama admitted this fact soon after he won reelection in 2012. Sitting next to Hillary Clinton – another Republicans in blue (Democrat) clothing – for a national news interview, he said that he didn’t understand why Republicans were so opposed to his policies, because 25 years ago his policies would be considered moderate Republican. Obama only mentioned his economic policies, but across the board he is an ’80s Republican. Even his signature healthcare plan, Obamacare, was largely created by the Heritage Institute in the ’90s as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s failed plan.
Ding ding ding. That’s the problem.
Democrats, at the national level where it counts most, are moderate Republicans. Republicans have been pushed further to the right in order to distinguish themselves. Their voters still have plenty of reasons to vote for them. Democrats voters don’t. Voters to the left ideologically of center-right have no one to vote for.
Simple as that.
As Jeb Lund so eloquently said in The Guardian soon after the carnage on the first Tuesday of November:
On Tuesday night, a lot of Republican-ish candidates got crushed by the official Republican candidates, confirming yet again that a gutless, wincing version of one kind of politics always loses to the robust one. Nobody first starts drinking Diet Coke because they think it tastes better, and the only people who keep drinking it are the ones who’ve drunk nothing else for so long that actual flavor seems weird. Why vote for someone hesitantly and semi-apologetically tacking toward the right when you can just vote for someone who goes balls-to-the-wall rightward and is damn proud of it? At least that person gives off the sense of actually enjoying his own beliefs.
Democrats think they are better at making policy, and assume people will vote for them based on that. They assume they will win elections because they have a better track record of success at governing, and because by most measures they are the better choice. If elections were decided by political scientists, Dems would ride to easy victory. They assume that voters know better and remember what a mess the country was in six years ago when George Bush slunk back to Texas and Obama saved the Republic.
Most people are not informed well enough to know who is better at governing or creating policy. They vote based on their gut feeling. Gut feelings are influenced by perceptions about which side – Team Red or Team Blue – has more gusto. If you are Joe or Jane Voter, your view of Democrats is shaped by two overarching observations:
One: Candidate Barack Obama is a different guy than President Barack Obama. Obama got elected in 2008 by promising to be a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, and he governed as a moderate Republican. On the issues that really count he failed. He came into office saying he would stop wars and instead created them. He said he would protect civil liberties and instead oversaw the further erosion of them. He promised to shift the focus to Democrat priorities, and instead allowed the agenda to be set by Republicans.
He also ended the war in Iraq (at least, temporarily), oversaw the creation of 10 million jobs, reduced the deficit by a trillion dollars, saved the auto industry, and provided healthcare to millions of Americans who couldn’t afford it. 2014 should have been his victory lap, but instead members of his own party treated him like an Ebola victim. And for reasons only God and the White House know, Obama did not trumpet his accomplishments.
Two: Democrat play lapdog to Republican alpha dog. Republicans know that most voters are tuned out and turned off by what’s happening in Washington, DC, and only a few big impressions are made on the general public each election cycle. One thing you can say about Republicans is they fight for what they believe in (or at least create that impression), while Democrats compromise too much and too readily give ground.
You know what would have made the sort of impression that would get more Democrats out to vote in 2014 and sway some independents to their side? Make a fuckin’ stand on issues that are important to Democrat and progressive voters.
When Republicans went after the Postal Service with the intention of destroying another union-dominated organization, Democrats should have raised holy hell. They should have filibustered and shouted from the rooftops and ground all business in DC to a stop. They should have fallen on their swords and let the blood gush all over the Capital steps. Instead, Republicans passed a law that virtually ensured that the Postal Service will eventually be privatized, and Democrats sucked their thumb and let the moment pass with hardly a whimper.
When Republicans went after teachers, another pro-union, liberal-leaning group, Democrats had a prime opportunity to stand up and defend a vital constituency. Teachers unions are reliably Democrat. Everyone in Washington knows that basing teacher salaries on student performance – “No Child Left Behind” – has nothing to do with improving education and everything to do eroding the power of teachers unions. Everyone except, apparently, Democrat leaders.
Now teachers are running scared and fighting for their jobs. Teachers unions have been smacked down. The American public education system is shamefully falling behind the competition because memorization is emphasized over critical thinking. And Republicans have one less solidly Democrat group to worry about.
These are two examples of how Democrats have lost their backbone and allowed their base of support to be systematically undercut. Two examples of how Democrats allow the groups that support them to be targeted and destroyed and don’t do a damn thing to help them. I could give a dozen more examples from the last 20 years off the top of my head. One particularly egregious example showed itself in the Rhode Island race for governor in 2014, which pitted a pro-Wall Street Democrat against a pro-Wall Street Republican.
Democrats followed the Pied Pipers, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, away from what they stood for and turned into moderate Republicans. Republicans happily watched Democrats cannibalize themselves and shifted to the right to define themselves, knowing that their voters would follow along and still vote for them. Liberals and left-leaning citizens have no one to champion them, no one to stand up for them, no one to count on when the going gets tough.
Republicans are not as good at governing as Democrats, but they have three things going for them. They know who their voters are, how to reach them, and how to make impressions. That makes all the difference come election time.
And for Democrats? They have feckless, thumb-sucking compromisers leading them. If I was the Democrat Party I would make Alan Grayson the Minority Leader, raise their swords and make a stand. Fight for what they believe in. Might makes right in politics. Grayson gets it. He’s a tough-talking, sarcastic-as-hell Democrat from Florida, exactly what’s needed to make a big impression.
Instead, Democrats are going to line up behind Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and continue doing what doesn’t work. They will count on the electoral winds to change in their favor in 2016. They will limp along for another two years under Obama and look to Hillary to recharge their batteries and change their fortunes.
And they will lose in 2016. Mark my words. They might keep the White House because of how the Electoral College favors them, but in races for the House and Senate they are locked into a dynamic that ensures they have little chance of regaining any real power. Apologists for the Democrats have pointed out that the President’s party usually loses midterm elections. I don’t buy it. After Republicans did nothing for two years except obstruct and complain and make fools of themselves, the midterm was a gimme for Democrats.
Democrats, Republicans didn’t win. You lost.