Dems left with egg on face after '14 losses
© Greg Nash

Democrats were left with egg on their faces when their Election Day shellacking revealed their polls were off and their ground game was insufficient. 

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Now, they're scrambling to figure out what went wrong, and why, to avoid being caught off guard by a Republican tidal wave again.

Many chalked up the losses to late breaking undecided voters going against Democrats, which they said may have been simply an unavoidable product of the national climate.

That was the case made by strategists working on one of the most maligned Democratic campaigns this cycle, Colorado Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallDemocratic primary could upend bid for Colorado seat Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' MORE. An aide said "we wouldn't have changed anything" about the heavy focus on reproductive issues, and that turnout was where they predicted it — the issue was the undecided voters. 

"Everything sort of fell into where we thought it would and where we wanted it to, except it was the late-breaking folks. But if you make up your mind that late, it's usually national trends at play," the aide said.

Democrats say the verdict is still out on whether it would've been more effective to put President Obama out front, defending his policies more. But they all agree that it was simply, in many respects, too difficult to localize those races effectively with President Obama faring so badly in each of the battleground states. 

Democrats' only Senate bright spot, New Hampshire’s Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenDems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress The Hill Interview: GOP chairman says ‘red flags’ surround Russian cyber firm Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ MORE, was successful, her campaign said, because of her ability to do just that.

“The campaign we ran was really an extension of her entire career in the Senate, and in many ways her career as a whole. It was laser-focused on New Hampshire, what she did for New Hampshire, and how she has made a difference in the lives of people across state,” said Shripal Shah, Shaheen’s deputy campaign manager.

But the incumbent was helped by the fact her opponent, former GOP Sen. Scott Brown, had moved to the state from Massachusetts, offering her a unique opportunity to highlight her work for the state that other Democrats didn't have.

On the ground, many operatives admitted, Democrats underestimated Republicans' turnout efforts and overestimated their own.

Though Democrats poured over $60 million into their field program in hopes of turning out their base and achieving a midterm electorate more like 2012 than 2010, they fell woefully short. Preliminary turnout data suggests turnout dropped from 2010 in all but 12 states, including some of the most competitive Senate states.

That had implications for polling and strategy that blinded Democrats to their losses on election night.

In Iowa, though public polls gave state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) the lead, none predicted as big a margin as her eventual nine-point win, except for the final poll Ann Selzer conducted for the Des Moines Register, which had Ernst up by seven.

She said her poll was weighted to the state’s population, not based on historic voting trends.

"We have seen enough elections in the last 15 years to say if you think the electorate is going to look what it's looked like, you're blind," said Selzer. 

Indeed, one Democratic strategist engaged in House races this cycle said the party’s underestimation of their turnout issues ultimately skewed their polling and made it difficult for them to message effectively. Democrats losses in the House could climb as high as 15 or more seats. 

"When the turnout is so incredibly awful, that means your polling was going to be flawed as well," the strategist said.

Another issue contributing to the party’s messaging difficulties were their money woes. 

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster that worked for Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, among others, said Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) and his allies spent about $60 million, while Grimes and Democrats spent about $22 million. 

Grimes lost by double digits on Election Day, an outcome no polls predicted, and suffered low turnout in some typically Democratic strongholds. Mellman said in particular the coordinated campaign between the state party and Grimes’ campaign was underfunded, and the overall money imbalance made an already underdog bid even tougher.

“There was money that was promised from all different directions that didn't materialize. Money that people were counting on that never arrived,” he said.

Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn also had less outside help than expected — in part because national Democrats had to invest elsewhere to protect deeply vulnerable incumbents.

At the House level, many outside groups that spent for Democrats in 2012 this cycle shifted their focus and their funds to the Senate fight, leaving the party with barely enough money to protect their own incumbents.

But some of the party's problems are more deeply-seated and long-standing than their ground game and their war chest.

Democrats lost ground with whites, particularly in the South, losing the 10 Southern states with a Senate election by an average of 42 points. Some strategists are warning that unless they figure out a way to make headway with that subset, they may be doomed to suffer similar midterm losses, or at least cede a significant portion of the nation to Republicans for the foreseeable future.

“We have a problem with white voters, and if we want to expand beyond these blue states we've got to address that,” Mellman said.

And the issue isn't necessarily on the policies or the message being pushed by Democrats. Indeed, in a handful of red states, progressive ballot measures, like minimum wage hikes and marijuana legalization, passed, while Democratic candidates and incumbents suffered resounding defeats.

The issue is that Democrats haven’t been able to make the case that the Democratic Party, and the government more broadly, can solve peoples’ economic woes. And that’s one, Mellman said, that may take some serious work.

“We do have sort of a fundamental problem, which is, people don’t think the economic improvements are benefitting them — they’re not totally wrong about that — and they’ve lost confidence in the ability of the government to solve that problem,” he said.

“We need to find an economic message that people believe we can accomplish. That’s much easier said than done.”