After Barack Obama’s landslide victory in the 2008 presidential election, there was some thinking that his popularity might be transferred into down-ballot races in upcoming elections. His campaign had energized and turned out a raft of voters who didn’t usually vote or who were voting for the first time. Surely if he were to point those voters to other races, it could shift electoral results, right?
Before his inauguration, Obama personally announced the creation of the group Organizing for Action, meant to pick up the baton from his campaign and keep organizing voters to fight for his political agenda.
It didn’t work. The Democrats were routed in the 2010 midterms and, over the eight years of his presidency, suffered huge losses at every level of government. Part of this was a function of the party’s overperformance in 2006 and 2008, but Obama’s popularity and his organization didn’t do much to stanch any losses.
After the 2016 primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tried something similar. In August 2016, he personally announced the creation of Our Revolution, a group meant to advocate for and elect progressive candidates who shared his vision up and down the ballot — people such as Pete D’Alessandro, who worked on Sanders’s campaign and got a personal endorsement from the senator for his bid to win a state House seat in Iowa.
On Tuesday night, he came in third. Out of three candidates.
Candidates endorsed by Our Revolution didn’t do terribly well overall Tuesday night. The group endorsed 30 candidates in six states (excluding one school board candidate). Four candidates finished in first place, according to preliminary results, including two in Iowa. Five more appear to have advanced to the general election or a runoff. The other 21 didn’t make the cut. More came in last in fields of more than two candidates than came in first.
Who did do well on Tuesday? Women. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University has been tracking female candidates over the course of 2018, including Tuesday’s contests. Their data suggests that 48 percent of the women who were on the ballot Tuesday won or advanced to the general election (56 of 117 candidates), with an additional quarter in races that were too close to call or going to runoffs.
Of course, that’s all women, not just Democrats. Among Democrats, women fared slightly better, winning 39 of 81 contests.
Those graphics aren’t equivalent to the way we visualized Our Revolution’s success Tuesday, as the latter shows all of the candidates who were running. Using the same visual treatment, here’s how Our Revolution fared.
There’s been a lot written about the surge of women running for office this year — a surge that’s historic in its size. The chain of events generally cited as the motivator includes the prominence of the #MeToo movement triggered in the fall with the revelations of alleged sexual assault by movie producer Harvey Weinstein. That movement, though, built on the movement that emerged visibly on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the Women’s March. Which, of course, was a reaction to Trump’s election and, by extension, the political triumph of a man whom women had accused of unwanted physical contact. And that triumph was over Hillary Clinton, who seemed poised to be the first woman to serve as president.
During the 2016 Democratic primary, Clinton earned a majority of support from women. (Clinton’s trouble attracting support from male voters extended back to 2008, as we reported at the time.) Much of Sanders’s support was among younger voters, the same group that helped power Obama’s 2008 candidacy.
It’s also a group that is less likely to turn out in lower-profile elections. The problem with successfully mobilizing hard-to-turn-out voters is that they are, by definition, hard to turn out. Obama and Sanders inspired surges for their own candidacies in presidential years, but redirecting such surges to other people two years later appears to be trickier.
Women, on the other hand, typically make up more of the electorate than men. The women who won Tuesday weren’t necessarily Clinton Democrats, but they could rely on a base of probable support that included voters more likely to head to the polls.
What happened Tuesday is, in a way, an echo of the split between young progressives and older women that was seen over the course of the 2016 primaries. (That year, Clinton was more popular with women overall, but younger women leaned toward Sanders.) It’s easy to read too much into that divide, certainly, particularly based on the preliminary results from one day of voting. But it’s hard not to notice that the parallels exist.
Winning elections is tricky, requiring thoughtful strategy and a good deal of luck, often not in equal proportions. Beyond political parties themselves, nationalized institutions integrated by law into the electoral process, few political groups have proved able to win elections repeatedly. Comparing Our Revolution to the #MeToo revolution isn’t apt, given that the latter is an informal grouping. But Tuesday night’s results do reinforce the challenge in translating one popular politician’s message to other candidates. Incidentally, about half of the Our Revolution candidates who appear to have won or advanced Tuesday were women.