One of the primary themes in the coverage of the midterm elections is the way that Democrats are running away from President Obama. They don’t want to be seen with him! They won’t say whether they voted for him! And this has reportedly become a source of friction between Democrats and the White House.
This is all being taken as evidence of a deep failure of Obama’s presidency. But in order to believe that, you need both a short memory and a willingness to ignore the basic geographical dynamics of American politics.
As a matter of political strategy, I’m not going to defend the candidates who are distancing themselves from Obama. The one who got the most attention was Alison Lundergan Grimes, who got infinitely more bad press for refusing to say whether she had voted for him in 2008 and 2012 than she would have if she had just said, “Sure I did, and let me tell you why I’m a Democrat…” Senate candidates have given up opportunities to tout policies that have support among voters, and running away from your party’s leader not only demoralizes your own base (particularly African-Americans), it just makes you look like a wimp.
But all this isn’t happening this year because there’s something unusually toxic about Barack Obama. Yes, his approval ratings are in the 40s, and if they were ten points higher a candidate here or there might feel a little less uneasy about campaigning with him. What this is really about is simple geography.
What’s distinct about this year is that there are so many close races not just in “purple” states, but in states that are deeply red. Should we be surprised that a candidate like Grimes doesn’t want to be associated with Obama? She’s running in Kentucky. A state Obama lost in 2012 by 23 points. Mark Pryor in Arkansas isn’t asking the President to campaign with him, either. That’s because Obama lost there by 24 points.
You may not realize it, but this year there are also Republicans running who don’t want to have much to do with their national leaders. Monica Wehby isn’t begging Mitch McConnell to come to Oregon to endorse her. Mike McFadden isn’t campaigning around Minnesota with Ted Cruz. Allen Weh isn’t airing ads in New Mexico featuring Rand Paul. There haven’t been stories about those candidates “distancing themselves” from the national GOP because they’re all going to lose, so there isn’t a lot of interest in their campaigns. But the dynamic is exactly the same.
Similarly, in 2016, there are going to be some Republican senators from blue states running for re-election who won’t want to have much to do with their party’s presidential nominee. When Mark Kirk in Illinois gets asked about his support for the nominee, he’ll probably hem and haw too. But it won’t reveal much beyond the fact that Kirk is a Republican trying to win in a Democratic state.
So at the most basic level, this year we’re seeing what we always see: where the president’s party is strong, candidates embrace him, and where the president’s party is weak, they don’t. In Southern states in particular, where there happen to be multiple close races, it’s especially important for Democratic candidates not only to say they’ll be independent from the Democratic party in policy terms, but also to display markers of cultural affinity (like shooting guns in their ads) and to accommodate themselves to the personal venom toward Barack Obama that is so common in their states.
Right now, Obama is doing what every president does in midterms: campaigning where he’ll help, and not where he can’t. He went to Wisconsin yesterday for a rally with gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, and he’s headed to Rhode Island, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where there are candidates happy to have him. And as Greg pointed out last week, there are many candidates, even in close races, who are touting the Affordable Care Act and using it to attack their opponents.
To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t candidates who don’t want to be seen with the President, and questions about this surely make them uncomfortable and annoy the White House. But even if Obama were more popular nationally, the same thing would be happening. And the dynamic will play out in the same way in 2016, 2018, and beyond, for as long as we have a country in which there are some places lots of Democrats live and other places lots of Republicans live.