Democrats Don’t Understand Their Own Midterm Weakness

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats do best in presidential years. They’ve won by popular count in six of the last seven races. But in recent midterms and special elections, their showings haven’t been nearly as strong. Visions of a “blue wave” are raising their hopes that this November will be different. For that to happen, though, the party and its supporters will need to overcome deep-rooted habits.

● In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, about two-thirds as many Republicans turned out to vote as for the presidential contests two years earlier. But only 53 percent of Democrats did. That margin sufficed to give Congress to the GOP, plus a raft of governors offices and state chambers. There is every reason to believe that Republicans will be out in force on Nov. 6. The challenge for Democrats is to close that 14 percent gap.

● Between April 2017 and August 2018 there were 10 special elections to fill congressional seats that had fallen vacant. Nine were for the House of Representatives in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio; the tenth was a Senate race in Alabama. Together, they were an opportunity for Democrats to show their strength. True, all were safe Republican terrain and Democrats lost in eight of the 10. That didn’t have to occur. Here are some figures that got little attention. In a Texas House district, the Republican won by 7,227 votes. More than 85,500 Democrats had turned out there in 2016 to vote for Hillary Clinton. But a mere 14,190 of them voted in the special race this June. Had just another 7,228 made the effort, the Democrat could have prevailed. In Ohio in August, the Republican crept in by 1,680 votes. The same story: 59,570 of Clinton’s people were doing other things that day. In South Carolina, a hard-to-fathom 76,315 sat it out in June 2017. Had Democrats bestirred themselves, seven of the eight losses could have been averted. (Only Utah was out of reach.) As of now, these tallies are the best evidence of how far Democratic intentions are followed at the polls.

● By my count, in 2016, Democrats ended with 21 fewer House seats than their turnout warranted. Altogether, the average Republican got in with 260,466 votes, while Democrats needed 316,585 for theirs. Except in Pennsylvania, the district maps that produced those results are still in place. Democrats will need even more wins to get even a bare majority. (Nor should they count on the Supreme Court. In June, it turned back a case challenging the partisan gerrymandering of district lines in Wisconsin.)

● Much is made of Clinton’s 2,984,757-vote margin. Remember, though, that her total was well under the ones that put President Barack Obama into the White House. Had she matched his numbers, she would have easily carried the needed states. Inter-year comparisons must consider the growth in the eligible electorate. That done, she was a daunting 9,275,179 votes behind Obama’s 2008 showing. True, some of his voters turned to Donald Trump. But a far larger number found Clinton not worth the effort to turn out. Republicans are less finicky. Trump’s total was within 1,821,140 of John McCain’s 2008 figure.

● Democrats are continually reminded that 10 of their senators face reelection in states that Trump carried. That’s the wrong emphasis. All are bipartisan, as attested by having chosen those senators. Even now, Montana has a Democratic governor. West Virginia elected one in 2016 (afterward he switched parties). But the 10 senators last won in 2012, a presidential year, with 18,163,001 Democratic ballots. In the 2014 midterm, not even half that number of Democrats made the trip to the polls. A hard truth: 2018 is another midterm.

● Two special-election wins don’t offer Democrats much solace. They carried a seat in western Pennsylvania in March by a hairbreadth 785 votes, with 29,023 of Clinton’s supporters sitting it out. In the Alabama Senate contest, it was Republicans who stayed home, given their appalling candidate. But there’s little doubt they will be rallying for their six representatives (of the state’s seven) next month.

If Republicans vote repeatedly and reliably, it’s due to issues that grip them personally and politically. At the top are firearms and abortion, plus immigration and the outlook for white men and women, the heart of their constituency. Of course, Democrats have concerns. But they need paragraphs to get their points across. Alan Abramowitz at Emory University has quantified how intensely partisans hold their positions. On his scale, 51 percent of Republicans rank high, compared with 28 percent of Democrats.

In the end, it’s not money or storefronts or consultants that turn midterm tides. Voters who provide winning margins get out largely on their own, because they feel the stakes are high, for themselves and the nation. Democrats who hope that Nov. 6 will be a plebiscite on an unpopular president should remember that his name won’t be in any booths. Party labels will. That’s the Republicans’ big advantage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrew Hacker teaches political science at Queens College. He is working on a book he calls “Republican America.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.