Barack Obama won two historic elections by effectively changing the composition of the electorate. Record turnout by young and minority voters enabled him to contest, and win, states thought to be out of reach for Democrats in presidential elections. Last year, black voters had higher rates of turnout than white voters, an historic first. These achievements seem increasingly specific to Obama as a candidate, however, rather than gains by the Democrat party as a whole. A veteran Democrat strategist even sees a party “in decline” without Obama on the ballot.
Doug Sosnik, political director in the Clinton White House, notes in a new strategy memo that “since Obama was elected President, the Democrats have lost nine governorships, 56 members of the House and two Senate seats.”
On the even of Obama’s first inauguration, pundits talked breathlessly about a “permanent Democrat majority.” The Republican party after 8 years of Bush fatigue, at the very least, seemed destined to spend many years in the minority. The resurrection of the GOP since then is one of the more underreported stories of the past few years.
In addition to regaining control of the House, the GOP now claims 30 governors and more state legislators in at least 100 years. In half the states, the party controls the governor’s mansion and state legislature. The Republicans have squandered a number of opportunities and have their own branding problems, but simply not being Democrats has often been sufficient to win races.
Sosnik notes that only 47% of voters have a favorable view of the Democrat party. When Obama was first sworn into office, 62% had a favorable view. Democrats, particularly in the Senate, face a very difficult political terrain next year, when a number of Democrat Senators face reelection in states Obama lost last year.
With the full implementation of ObamaCare set to take effect and an economy that is almost stagnant, the Democrats run a real risk of losing control of the Senate next year.
After his reelection, Obama reorganized his political campaign into a new, permanent advocacy organization, Organizing for Action. Its mission was to use its vaunted campaign apparatus to promote specific priority issues for Obama. Its first actions were on Obama’s sweeping gun control proposals. Its efforts were a failure.
It is a clear sign that the personal appeal Obama has as a candidate doesn’t easily translate to issues or policies. For many of his supporters, he is almost a post-political president. They support him, but they’re just not that into his policies.
Over the next three years, Obama, like all second-term presidents, will gradually recede from domestic policy debates. Democrats look unable to fill that void.