« Channeling the classic "reluctant gunfighter" meme - How Obama was able to get tough with the GOP during the 2012 campaign and yet still be seen as "the good guy" in public opinion polls. | Main | Political Strategy Notes »

ShareThis

Lessons of 2012: The Struggle Downballot

Given the overwhelming attention paid to the presidential contest, it's worth a final, panoramic look at downballot races, where Democrats made gains despite a difficult landscape, while Republicans ultimately held onto control of the House and veto power in the Senate, along with continued strong national majorities in statehouses.

The 2012 elections produced relatively few changes in Congress (Democrats gained two Senate seats and 9 House seats, after Republican gains of 5 Senate and 63 House seats in 2010), but a lot was going on beneath the surface.

This cycle was supposed to represent an extraordinary opportunity for Republicans to secure control of the Senate, since 23 of the 33 seats up were controlled by Democrats, who also lost 6 incumbents to retirement (as opposed to three Republicans). Given the steady decline in split-ticket voting, it was notable that two of the Democratic retirees represented profoundly Republican states (Nebraska and North Dakota), and two incumbents were running in other states certain to go Republican in the presidential contest (Missouri and Montana). Only one Republican retiree (and a late one whose decision not to run was a major shock) was from a sure Obama state (Maine), and only one incumbent Republican (Scott Brown of Massachusetts) was running in "enemy territory." Republicans also anticipated a significant financial advantage in Senate races overall, thanks to heavy commitments of funds by Super-PACs and 501(c)(4)s.

In the end, Democrats won a relatively predictable pickup in Massachusetts, and an independent expected to caucus with Democrats predictably won an open Republican seat in Maine. What no one expected was a Democratic pickup in Indiana, the direct result of a right-wing primary "purge" of long-time Sen. Richard Lugar and then a disastrous gaffe by the GOP nominee late in the campaign. Equally surprising were Democratic "holds" by a left-for-dead incumbent in Missouri (another state where the GOP nominee self-destructed) and in North Dakota's open seat. The Democratic "hold" in Montana was less surprising, but still impressive since Mitt Romney carried the state by 13 points. Democrats also held vulnerable open seats in Virginia, Wisconsin and New Mexico, and another incumbent thought to be vulnerable in Florida won easily. It wasn't a sweep, but it defied early expectations for the cycle dramatically.

Republicans held onto a 233-200 majority in the House (with two vacancies) thanks to two interacting factors: the superior efficiency of their vote distribution across districts, and the effect of the post-2010 redistricting, in which Republicans were especially focused on shoring up the freshman members election in the 2010 landslide. All in all, the median congressional district was five points more Republican than the country as a whole. This tilt enabled the GOP to maintain a comfortable House majority despite losing the presidential popular vote by nearly four percent and also losing the the national House popular vote (never precise because some states did not report votes in uncontested races) by just over one percent.

As in Senate races, Democrats had an unfortunate landscape in gubernatorial contests, controlling eight of the twelve governorships at stake despite a 29-20 deficit in governorships overall. Moreover, four of those eight Democratic gubernatorial seats were open, as opposed to one Republican seat. Two Democratic governorships and three of the four Republican governorships were in states certain to be won handily by Romney. Ultimately Democrats won very close races in Montana and Washington, won comfortably in the "red state" of Missouri, and lost a competitive race only in North Carolina, where the Democratic incumbent retired late in the cycle in the midst of ongoing scandals. As in the Senate races, the final results did not fully reflect a strong Democratic performance against expectations. Republicans now control 30 governorships, their highest level since 1996 (and before that, since 1970).

Republicans also effectively used redistricting to protect their historic 2010 surge in control state legislatures. Going into the election, Republicans had a 60-35 margin in control of Senate or House chambers. Democrats posted a net gain of 4 House chambers; a pickup of two net Senate chambers was wiped out by post-election deal-making in New York and Washington. Until those same deals split control of the legislature in those states, the big news coming out of November was a sharp drop in states with divided party control: down to three, the lowest level since 1944. Reinforcing the trend towards polarization in state legislatures is a rapid increase in veto-proof "supermajorities," now prevailing in 35 of 99 chambers spread across 25 states. Adding in governorships, Republicans have total control of state government in 23 states and Democrats in 13.

Although the gubernatorial and state legislative races didn't get a lot of national attention, ballot initiatives did: or at least three items--all major progressive accomplishments--did: (1) the first-ever series of ballot initiatives in which supporters of same-sex marriage won (Maryland and Maine); (2) initiatives legalizing marijuana possession (Washington and Colorado); and (3) California voters' approval of a major tax increase that appears likely to end that state's endless budget deadlock (particularly given Democratic achievement of super-majorities in the state legislature).

What if anything do these downballot results suggest for 2014 and beyond?

To echo one of the messages from Part II of Lessons of 2012, the central datum Democrats must remember going into 2014 is the existence of two different electorates--one that votes in midterms, one that votes in presidential contests--that are to an unprecedented extent aligned with the two parties. Thanks to this phenomenon, Democrats were almost certain to have a major falloff in vote-share in 2010 after their 2008 victory, and Republicans were even more certain to suffer a disappointment in plans to reduplicate their 2010 landslide in 2012. Unless Democrats can do something to reverse or at least mitigate the major shift to support for the GOP among older white voters that emerged dramatically between 2006 and 2008 and has since persisted through three cycles, or defy history by significantly boosting midterm turnout among younger and minority voters, 2014 is likely to be another tough year.

The difficulty of the 2014 landscape will be exacerbated by some of the factors that helped Republicans limit downballot losses in 2012. Higher voting "efficiency" and past redistricting will continue to mean that Republicans can out-perform their total vote in House and state legislative contests. As in 2012, the Senate landscape is unfavorable to Democrats, who must defend 20 seats as compared to 13 for Republicans. Worse yet, seven of those 20 seats will be in states carried by Mitt Romney, while only one GOP seat is in a state (Maine) carried by Obama (the incumbent there, Susan Collins, won 62% of the vote in 2008 even as Obama was winning 58% in the state). And the Democratic Senate Class that's up in 2014 is a bit long in the tooth (Frank Lautenberg will be 88; Carl Levin 78; Jay Rockefeller 75; Max Baucus and Tom Harkin 72; Tim Johnson is only in his sixties, but has a history of health problems), so retirements are likely.

Gubernatorial races offer Democrats a much better chance of gains, notably in the northeastern and midwestern states where they lost in 2010 (Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin in particular). But growing Democratic weakness in the South (outside Virginia, where Democrats have a good chance to take back the governorship this year, and Florida, where Rick Scott is profoundly unpopular) will inevitably limit gains in that region, and Democrats have only a few clear targets in the West (Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico). It's not at all unrealistic to suggest Democrats could retake a majority of U.S. governorships, particularly since only one of their existing 19 seats (in Arkansas, held by the term-limited Mike Beebe) looks very vulnerable.

If Democrats exceed expectations downballot in 2014, then they will be well-positioned when the presidential electorate returns to the polls in 2016. That year they will also finally get a favorable Senate landscape (24 Republican seats up, only 10 Democratic seats). And there's another thing to keep in mind: if Republicans predictably have a relatively good year in 2014, it may once again prevent the kind of significant reforms in party ideology and messaging that might otherwise enable them to improve their performance among the elements of the electorate that are growing and who turn out strongly in presidential years.