The argument that Republicans have a strong wind at their backs both in 2014 and in 2016 is largely based on prior electoral history. Second-term midterms are usually a disaster for the party controlling the White House; the sole modern exception, in 1998, was at a time when the economy was booming and the Democratic president’s approval ratings (contrasting sharply with Republican efforts to remove him from office) were in the 60s. And statistically speaking, parties which hold the White House for two consecutive terms have a poor record in holding onto it for a third (1988 being the sole exception since 1948).
Republicans who quite naturally would like to interpret what is happening right now as the consolidation of a “natural” GOP majority do have to explain away 2012; some, of course, choose to blame the Romney campaign or the news media or the power of presidential incumbency, if not some more lurid theory involving fraud or vote-buying. It’s not unusual in the GOP chattering classes to hear 2012 used as a cautionary tale for 2016; the “wrong” presidential candidate running the “wrong” kind of campaign can always throw away a strong hand. It’s a problem that, however, can be cured by choosing Mr. Right in 2016, and avoiding own-goals like antagonizing Latinos or women.
But however bright or hazy it is, the sunny near-term optimism in the GOP ranks mistakes a powerful confluence of factors favoring them this November that will be absent, or even reversed, in 2016. These include an extraordinarily positive Senate landscape, an (at least temporarily) unshakable incumbency/efficiency advantage in the House, and eternal midterm turnout patterns that bring precisely those older and whiter voters recently trending Republican to the polls more often than Democratic-leaning younger and minority voters.
Moreover, some of these advantages come together in the contests which will likely decide, in the eyes of the punditocracy, who “won” or “lost” in 2014, an assortment of southern Senate races.
If Democratic Senate incumbents lose in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, we will hear that this represents the final death of the southern wing of the Democratic Party. But if Democrats win upsets in Kentucky and Georgia thanks to Republican infighting, that, too will be cited as a big future indicator.
Unfortunately for Democrats, their general weakness in the South as reflected in Barack Obama’s loss of every one of the above states in 2012 will be considerably accentuated by midterm turnout patterns.
White voters typically represent a higher percentage the midterm electorate than nonwhite voters. In 2012, Obama won 33 percent of the white vote in Kentucky, 31 percent in North Carolina, 26 percent in Arkansas, 19 percent in Georgia, and 12 percent in Louisiana. Democrats will obviously have to exceed those percentages of the white vote in every one of these states unless there is a very atypical surge in minority voting
But the problem goes beyond the propensity of white voters to turn out more in midterms than nonwhite voters.
The New York Times’ Nate Cohn looked at the age distribution of North Carolina voters in 2010 and 2012:
In 2012, North Carolina’s seniors voted for Mitt Romney by 29 points, more than twice his 12-point advantage nationally among older voters, according to exit polls. By contrast, President Obama won North Carolina’s young voters by a 35-point margin, better than the 24-point margin he won nationally. This 64-point gap between young and old North Carolinians was nearly twice as large as it was nationally. Lower youth turnout, then, is twice as damaging to Democrats in North Carolina than it is nationally….
When young voters stay home, the state reverts to its Republican past and the more conservative bent of the South. And judging from the last midterm election, the plunge in youth turnout could be huge. Eighteen- to 25-year-olds accounted for a mere 3.9 percent of voters in 2010, down from 10.4 percent of voters in 2008, according to the secretary of state’s office. Older voters jumped from 17.5 to 26.1 percent of those turning out.
Combine the age and race turnout disparities, and you have a very different North Carolina electorate:
Mitt Romney’s modest victory margin of 2 percentage points would have turned into a 10-point rout if the 2012 electorate had been as old and white as it was in 2010.
So in the southern cockpit of the 2014 contest for control of the Senate, Democrats will be fighting not only a “referendum effect “ and perhaps a “six-year itch,” but also a very adverse turnout pattern in which rapidly GOP-trending older white voters are likely to have extra weight.
About the only advantage Democrats will have in such contests is an exceptional focus precisely on their turnout problems.
As Sasha Issenberg explains in the latest issue of The New Republic, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is deliberately diverting significant resources from the usual swing-voter-focused paid television advertising into a get-out-the-vote effort based on the Obama campaign’s highly successful 2012 technique, with the explicit goal of making the midterm electorate resemble the presidential electorate as much as is possible. They will, of course, be fighting not only historic patterns but their underlying reasons — particularly the unrooted nature of young voters who typically tune out of downballot electoral contests.
But even if the Democratic bend-the-electorate effort falls short, it could mean they enter the presidential cycle prepared to harvest a return on investment by maximizing the Democratic advantage in presidential turnout patterns, when young and minority voters can be expected to return to the polls.
And if Democrats are then competing with a Republican Party that’s convinced itself that its 2014 performance was part of some big and irresistible trend, the 2016 results could produce a nastier shock for the GOP than did the 2012 election they were destined to win.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.