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President Obama’s post-midterm press conference was incredible in many ways. After a grudging acknowledgement of GOP gains (being too ungracious to offer congratulations), Obama declared: “Still, as president, I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work. So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
This attempt at Bartletesque rhetoric went over like a lead balloon, since the real world does not conform to Aaron Sorkin’s imagination. Pundits have been picking over the meaning of the “two-thirds” remark since the moment it left the President’s lips. (My own interpretation: He was trying to diminish the GOP’s mandate, by suggesting that Tuesday’s GOP victories represent the will of only a small fraction of Americans.) But regardless of the President’s intended meaning, I would argue that there is an important truth in his remark.
The mechanics of Republican victory in 2014 resemble those of Democratic victory in 2012. In 2012, Democrats successfully used technology to identify and mobilize their base; this time, Republicans did so. In 2012, Democrats defined Romney as “extreme” and out of touch; a defensive Romney could not appeal simultaneously to moderates and his base, and his voters lacked the enthusiasm to turn out. Similarly, Republicans forced Democrats to choose between Obama and their constituencies, and the Democrats failed to walk the tightrope.
If Obama could overcome his large ego — which he’s built up to protect his fragile self-esteem — he would acknowledge that this is his failure. Before the election, Obama described the division of responsibility: “[S]ome of the candidates there — it is difficult for them to have me in the state because the Republicans will use that to try to fan Republican turnout…. The bottom line is though, these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress…. These are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me, and I tell them, I said, ‘You know what, you do what you need to do to win. I will be responsible for making sure our voters turn out.'”
Michelle Obama traveled around giving stump speeches to women and African Americans, and the President also did his part — from a distance — to gin up turnout. Some of these efforts were unhelpful. In a speech on the economy, he tried to motivate the base by saying, “I’m not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.” Unfortunately for Democrats, the media that reach the base also reach the mainstream, undermining candidates’ efforts to separate themselves from Obama’s disastrous record. Go figure.
The deeper story here is that, notwithstanding the Obamas’ efforts, this time the Democratic base declined to comply. Erik Erickson describes how, in Illinois and Georgia, it appears that black voters deliberately stayed home. Even if they could not stomach pulling the lever for the GOP, they could express their dissatisfaction by refusing to cast an affirmative vote for their party.
Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics digs deeper into what happened in Illinois. Rauner actively campaigned for minority votes:
During the hard-fought campaign, he spent a good deal of time on the South Side of Chicago, listening to African-Americans and courting endorsements from prominent black business leaders and pastors.
Rauner, too, heard from those who proclaimed this a wasted effort. He wasn’t going to change any minds, these critics told him, and he should spend his time campaigning where the votes were truly up for grabs.
On the surface, the critics were proven right. Rauner received only 7 percent of the African-American vote Tuesday, just one percentage point better than Republican Bill Brady received four years earlier en route to losing to Quinn by 32,000 votes (out of 3.5 million ballots cast) during another banner Republican year.
But that only tells part of the story. Rauner outperformed Brady by four points in the city of Chicago (21 percent-17 percent), by five points in the Cook County suburbs (45-40 percent), by seven points in the collar counties (60-53) and by 15 points in urban areas overall (37-22).
So, how does a candidate receive the same 7% of the African American vote that his predecessor did, yet also do much better in heavily African American precincts? The arithmetic would suggest that fewer African Americans turned out to vote.
I have a global theory of electoral politics: It’s tribal. Not tribal in a positive way, like wanting your sports team to win, but tribal in a negative way: People’s first concern is to avoid being ruled by the other tribe. Cultural issues resonate, because they depict one’s opponent as a member of that other tribe, who will not have your interests at heart. Hence the War on Women narrative, charges of racism, and accusations that Romney forcibly cut a boy’s hair at age 17 and put a dog on the roof of his car. The GOP too uses cultural issues, to define Dems as “not right for [insert jurisdiction here]” — consider Bruce Braley, the litigious bad neighbor who looks down on farmers.
Rauner didn’t pick up any additional votes from his efforts. But if he made his victory an option that minorities could stomach, he took away a reason for them to go to the polls. Bringing down your opponent’s vote total works nearly as well as bringing yours up. Now Rauner is governor-elect.
Greg Abbott campaigned in heavily Hispanic portions of Texas, and beat expectations there. Rand Paul has presented himself to the NAACP and in Berkeley, Calif. It’s time for other GOPers go into the heart of Democratic cultural territory too. The most encouraging lesson of 2014 for the party’s future may be: Go where you’re unpopular. Because even if you don’t persuade voters to pull the lever for you, you may persuade them that it’s okay for them to stay home and let you win.Published in