Contrary to what so many Democrats would like to believe, Kay Hagan and the Democrats could not have saved themselves by wrapping themselves around Obama’s accomplishments. On the contrary, when Obama told an audience that even though he wasn’t on the ballot, his policies were, he sealed the Democrats’ fate. In states like North Carolina, where Democratic candidates were trying to focus on local issues, Obama reminded voters that the election was really about him and his record.
The list of Obama’s accomplishments might be long and impressive, but few voters are feeling their impact. Democratic candidates like Alison Grimes were silly to try to distance themselves from Obama by refusing to say they voted for him, but embracing him wouldn’t have been smart either. A solid majority of voters say they disagree with him and his policies.
Despite what too many commentators are saying, Kay Hagan never ran from the president. She greeted him at the airport in Charlotte just two months before the election. She never denied voting for Obama for president.
Unemployment may be down, the stock market may be at record highs and we may have the longest stretch of job growth since World War II but the people who determine elections don’t know it. More importantly, they don’t care. Until a majority of people feel secure in their jobs, see their incomes going up, their debt going down and believe their children have a brighter future, Democrats don’t have much of a record to run on–despite the accomplishments. You cannot win elections spouting statistics.
Another myth is that if Hagan and other Democrats had embraced the president, minorities would have voted in heavier numbers. In North Carolina, at least, African-Americans voted at roughly the same rate as everybody else and at a higher level than they did in 2010. It appears that African-Americans made up 21% of the electorate last Tuesday and another percentage point, or even two, would not have been enough to change the outcome of the election. Besides, bringing Obama into the state would also have motivated the opposition, offsetting some of the Democratic gains.
Make no mistake. In North Carolina, African-American voters pulled their weight. It’s white voters that lost the election for Hagan. They voted for Tillis by almost 2-1.
Since Obama’s 2008 win in North Carolina, Democrats have based a substantial part of their strategy on shaping the electorate, especially in midterm elections. The 2014 election proved that strategy is not realistic. The very best of turnout operations may be able to increase turnout by four or five percent, but the Republicans’ operations are offsetting any major margin of victory. The success of the GOTV programs on both sides resulted in a turnout in North Carolina substantially higher than the nation as a whole.
Instead of relying so heavily on shaping the electorate, Democrats are going to have to win the argument with swing voters. That doesn’t mean they need to become more conservative. It means they need an economic message that speaks to the concerns of working class families of all colors that increases wages, reduces economic uncertainly and offers hope that the next generation can have a brighter future than we can offer today.