If you want to understand how senior Dems really view the challenges they face in the midterm elections — as opposed to the simplistic “Dems running from Obamacare” nonsense that is prevalent in much commentary — then you should read Sasha Issenberg’s big piece breaking down the bleak political landscape Dems face and what they are trying to do about it.
The basic thesis: Dems face the problem of what Ed Kilgore calls “the Two Electorates,” the presidential year electorate and the midterm one, and they are approaching this with a two-tiered strategy that continues to be broadly misunderstood. First, here’s Issenberg on the Two Electorates:
[I]n one very measurable and consequential sense, there are two Americas. There is the America that votes in presidential elections, which has helped Democrats win the popular vote in five out of the last six cycles and supports the view that Hillary Clinton can continue that streak should she run. Then there is the America that votes more regularly, casting ballots in both presidential and midterm years, which led to the Republican wave in 2010 and gives its party’s leaders reason to be so sanguine about their odds this time around.
There are about 127 million people in that first category, and among their number is the ascendant coalition — young and diverse, urban and mobile — that now gives Democrats a huge advantage in presidential races. But only 78 million of those people, or about 40 percent of the country’s voting-age population, belong to the group that goes to the polls every two years, and those regular voters carry a considerably more conservative cast.
Issenberg discusses this problem in terms of two voter categories: The “Reflex” voters, who can be counted on to vote in both types of elections, and populate the Republican coalition; and the “Unreliables,” who can’t be counted on to show up in midterm elections, and populate the Democratic coalition, such as unmarried women and minorities. The key is that Issenberg casts this as a deep structural problem — one rooted in broad socioeconomic and demographic factors — that goes well beyond the usual things we are told will influence the outcome this fall, such as presidential unpopularity; the political “atmosphere”; the partisan “intensity gap”; and, of course, Obamacare.
Issenberg then explains that Dems are dealing with this problem by focusing not just on boosting turnout among core groups — as much analysis has noted — but also on persuading the “Reflex” voters to support Dem candidates in just large enough numbers to offset the deep disadvantages Dems face:
The real reason Democrats have embraced a progressive agenda has not been to energize their own base but to lure Reflex voters from the other side. Obama and his party’s candidates talk about the minimum wage in the hope that working-class whites skeptical of Democrats on other matters will become more ambivalent about voting Republican. Democrats’ renewed interest in women’s issues — including a defense of Planned Parenthood and embrace of equal-pay standards — is also designed with defections in mind. In 2012, the Obama campaign’s entire direct-mail program on women’s issues was targeted at reliable voters who leaned Republican.
The Democratic focus on the economic “fair shot” agenda — with a particular emphasis on women’s economics — and the efforts to tie Republican candidates to the Koch brothers are often described, variously, as efforts to galvanize the base and to “distract from Obamacare.”
Certainly mobilizing turnout among Dem-inclined women and minorities is part of the reason for the focus on issues like the minimum wage, pay equity, and even the Medicaid expansion (one area where Obamacare actually is a plus for Dems). But there is a larger story here. The emphasis on Dem policies to address wage stagnation and stalled economic mobility — combined with the ongoing argument that billionaires are trying to buy a GOP-controlled Senate — are consciously designed as two strands in a larger narrative about inequality, plutocracy, and how struggling Americans view what has happened to the economy.
Republicans are trying to channel economic anxiety into a vote against Dem incumbents by casting Obamacare as a symbol of #Obummer Big Government’s complicity in the sputtering recovery. But Dems are telling a story about an economic status quo rigged for the likes of the Koch brothers. They are making the case that the vast majority of the recovery’s gains are going to the top; that hard work no longer pays off, due to stagnating wages and other trends; and that only Dems have an actual policy agenda to begin to deal with these problems, while Republicans have no agenda other than protecting the interests of the wealthy, going after the safety net (a Hammock of Dependency in the Paul Ryan worldview), and, of course, repealing Obamacare.
Scoff at that if you will, but polls do show that majorities view Republicans as prioritizing the interests of the rich. The emphasis on these topics is very much about persuasion — it is meant as an appeal to independents and even some Republicans. On things like the minimum wage hike, unemployment insurance, the GOP case that the safety net traps folks in dependency, and the need for (yup) redistributive policies to combat inequality, independents and even some non-Tea Party Republicans side with Dems. Meanwhile, the Dem plan to hit GOP candidates over their support for Personhood is also about winning over persuadable GOP-sympathetic women. No question, this all seems far fetched given the current map, but as Issenberg notes, marginal shifts could ultimately dictate who controls the Senate in the end.
As Issenberg concludes, mobilization and persuasion are both crucial to making this work, even if it is a tall order indeed:
The “it will all come down to turnout” meme misapprehends get-out-the-vote operations as a form of ratification — the final frenzied push to ensure that the people whom candidates have persuaded all year actually cast a ballot. The new playbook on the left … inverts that logic: Democratic Senate campaigns will be designed to mobilize their way into contention, then persuade their way across the finish line. The risk is that November arrives and Democrats are so unpopular that the Unreliables they need to mobilize become too costly and the Reflex voters they need to persuade too far out of reach.
Dems very well may fall short, and lose control of the Senate, but it’s worth appreciating how they actually view the challenges they face.