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Democratic Operative: 'This Was Not a Turnout Election… It Was a Wave Election'

Democratic Operative: 'This Was Not a Turnout Election… It Was a Wave Election'

Guy Cecil is the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the driving force behind the vaunted $60 million Bannock Street project that fizzled on election day. On Thursday, at the CQ Roll Call Election Impact Conference, he said, “This was not a turnout election in the sense that another door knock would have mattered or another half-million would have mattered. It was a wave election.”

Not only did Republicans take back a majority in the U.S. Senate with a net gain of at least seven and possibly nine seats, their comfortable margin in the House of Representatives increased by a dozen.

According to Cecil, comparative technological capabilities were irrelevant to the outcome of the 2014 wave election. “Republicans could have carried a Commodore 64 on a wagon going door-to-door… it wasn’t going to change the fundamental dynamics of the election,” he added.

It is not surprising that the man most responsible for ensuring Democrats turned out to vote in Senatorial elections on Tuesday might be eager to find someone or something else to blame for the party’s electoral debacle. But Cecil’s view that the 2014 midterms were a national wave of opposition to President Obama’s policies is widely shared across the country by pundits, political operatives, and regular voters alike.

Speaking at the same conference on Thursday, Cecil’s counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rob Collins, agreed that the 2014 midterms were a wave election.

“Is it a wave? Yes, probably, historically speaking it will be argued this was a wave election,” Collins told the Roll Call election analysis broadcast on C-SPAN.

But Collins also said that Democrats missed an opportunity to get out their base by failing to get President Obama on the campaign trail more in certain areas. “Democrats made a big mistake in sidelining President Obama specifically in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado,” Collins said.

An analysis of voter turnout supports Collins’ assessment that the Democrats underutilized President Obama. U.S. News, for instance, reported that turnout for the 2014 midterm elections was only 36.5% of registered voters, down significantly from the 40.9% turnout in the 2010 midterm elections, another wave election in which the Tea Party powered a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

A closer look at the results shows that, when compared to the 2012 presidential election, turnout among key Democratic constituencies was down in 2014.

In 2012, African-Americans comprised 13% of all voters, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of exit polls. In 2014, they were down to 12%. Likewise, Hispanics comprised 10% of all 2012 voters but only 8% of 2014 voters. Unmarried women, who overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates this cycle by a margin of 60% to 38%, also had a lower turnout, declining from 23% of all voters in 2012 to 21% in 2014. 

Young voters aged 18 to 29 (Millennials), the majority of whom supported Democrats this cycle (54% to 43%), also turned out at much lower rates: 13% of all voters in 2014 versus 19% in 2012.

The dynamics of lower turnout among key groups that support Democrats played out to their disadvantage, especially in North Carolina, where Democrat incumbent Kay Hagan (D-NC) narrowly lost her U.S. Senate seat to Republican challenger Thom Tillis, 49% to 47%. 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 22% of North Carolina’s population of 9.5 million is African-American. As the New York Times reported, 96% of African-Americans in North Carolina who voted in 2008 voted for President Obama; and 96% who voted in 2014 voted for Kay Hagan.

By failing to bring President Obama to campaign heavily in North Carolina, the Democrats left much of that 2% needed for victory at home, rather than at the polling places.

In the 2008 presidential election, African-Americans comprised 22.2% of the voters who cast ballots in North Carolina. That number increased in 2012 to 23%. But in the midterm wave elections of 2010 and 2014, African-American participation dropped dramatically.

Nationally, African-American turnout in 2008 was a record 65%, exceeded only by another record turnout of 66% in 2012, better than overall turnout rates of 63.6% and 61.8% respectively. In 2010 and 2014, African-American turnout plummeted to 39% and 35% respectively.

In North Carolina, African-American turnout in 2008 was 71.9% and, in 2012, was 70.3%. In both midterm wave elections of 2010 and 2014, it dipped below 40%.

Cecil tried to make the best of that drop-off by pointing out that “In North Carolina we increased the African-American percentage of the vote from 19% [in the 2010 midterms] to 21%… The challenge is it doesn’t matter in a wave election,” Cecil said.

In each midterm wave election, however, African-American participation was below its percentage of the overall population, while in the general elections where President Obama was on the ballot, it was greater than its percentage of the overall population.

Cecil seemed to be concerned that Democratic donors might abandon investments in the ground game in the 2016 cycle due to the disappointing results of 2014 and indirectly pleaded with them not to abandon that effort.

Cecil noted that in 2012, President Obama lost all of the ten swing Senate race states compared to this cycle where the Democrats won only one race (New Hampshire).

This has implications for the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination. Will Hillary Clinton inspire the far left Democratic base to turn out, or will Elizabeth Warren? Of the two, Warren has more star power with the far left.

In addition, the friction between the Clintons and President Obama is well known. Ideologically, the activists at Obama’s old campaign machine, now called Organizing for America, align with Warren, not Clinton.

Finally, turnout and the electorate in a presidential election are far different than in a midterm election. Turnout rates in a presidential election are typically around 60% to 63%, as opposed to 36% to 41% in midterms. Low-propensity voters are more prone to turn out in a presidential election. 

Get-out-the-vote operations have more incremental success when targeted at low-propensity voters. 

In its post-election press releases, the Republican National Committee has claimed that a significant factor in the party’s electoral success in 2014 is attributable to its ground game that identified and turned out low-propensity Republican voters.

But an alternate view may be more plausible. High and moderate-propensity Republicans who turned out to power the 2010 midterm wave turned out at the same rate in the 2014 midterm, while low-propensity Democratic voters simply did not turn out.

Those low-propensity Democratic voters who stayed home in 2014 will still be sitting in their houses, open to persuasion by an aggressive Democratic ground game and a motivating candidate at the head of the ticket.

Democrats are hoping that the pattern of a midterm wave election loss in 2010 that was followed by a presidential victory in the 2012 general election will repeat itself in 2016. They’re betting that the different electorate of the 2016 general election will behave more like the electorate of the 2012 general election, not the 2014 midterm wave.

Republicans, for their part, are hoping that in 2016, unlike in 2012, some of the lessons from the midterm wave will translate to a different presidential election outcome.

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