The coalition of voters that twice elected President Obama to the White House might not be there for the Democratic nominee in 2016, party strategists are warning.
But some fear the party is placing far too much trust in demographics, while ignoring the unique circumstances that led to Obama’s rise.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party should take anyone for granted, or should just assume that these voters are just going to back our nominee, and more importantly, going to turn out for the same level as President Obama,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
“They’re going to need a reason and they’re going to need a message.”
Obama won the Electoral College handily in 2008 and 2012, vanquishing the GOP with a coalition of millennials, minorities and women in swing states such as Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.
The wave of support gave Obama the former GOP strongholds of Virginia (in both elections) and North Carolina (in 2008), stirring anxious chatter among Republicans about being locked out of the White House for years to come. Obama’s victories, combined with the rising Hispanic population, have convinced many Democrats that the presidential map is skewing decidedly in their favor.
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That need seems particularly acute after the drubbing the party took in the midterms — dismal results due, in part, to overall turnout sliding to its lowest level since 1942.
“The messaging we put out there hasn’t been translating,” a senior Democratic operative said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It has been an issue for us.”
“We need to try and communicate what’s at stake,” the operative added.
Not only did Democrats lose seats in red and purple states this year, they also failed to win the governor’s mansion in deep-blue Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland, where exit polls showed black and young voters found other things to do on Election Day.
“People just stayed home because the candidate didn’t motivate them and didn’t manage to convince them to go to the polls,” Thornell said.
But anxious Democrats think there could be more to the problem than that.
They note that even when Obama got involved in encouraging his base to vote for the candidates of his choosing, the results were tepid at best.
Obama focused intently on turning out the black vote, conducting a series of urban radio interviews and taping commercials for black networks. Despite that, Democrats received a lower percentage of the black vote, and fewer blacks turned out at the polls than in either of Obama’s presidential contests.
“The magic of 2008 will be hard to reproduce,” Southern Methodist University Professor Cal Jillson said, pointing out that the Democratic advantage among blacks had gone from “10-to-1 to 19-to-1” under Obama.
Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate known for stringing together political coalitions at the other end of the political spectrum, said Democrats face two major problems.
The first: Many of the party’s structural advantages — from volunteer lists to technology infrastructure — were built by Obama’s campaign team, not by the party.
The second, he said, is that demographics are not destiny.
Norquist said anyone looking at the electorate through the prism of race, gender and ethnicity would miss the rise of “issue voters,” including the swelling numbers of gun-permit holders, homeschoolers or school-voucher recipients in swing states.
“The electorate is different today than when Obama got elected — people now have freedoms and rights they didn’t before,” Norquist said.
Any Democratic nominee expecting Obama’s supporters to fall into his or her lap will be in for a rude awakening, he said.
“They’re not transferable, you can’t hand people off like they are serfs or something,” he said.
The 2008 Obama campaign had an additional advantage: the then-senator could clothe himself in the garb of the outsider running against the status quo, all while seeking to make history as the nation’s first black president.
Now, the Democratic candidate will be running as the de facto incumbent, associated with Obama’s checkered record to a greater or lesser degree.
Polls indicate that a still-lagging economy and the lack of progress on key issues such as immigration reform have wounded the party — and the president — among groups that once offered stalwart support.
A Washington Post / ABC News poll released Nov. 2 showed Obama’s favorability among Hispanics had dropped a staggering 19 points since January. His standing had declined 9 points with blacks and 6 points with independents.
The numbers bear a striking resemblance to the pre-Obama world, when the electoral map was less friendly to Democrats.
Warnings about the crackup of the Obama coalition have come from none other than David Plouffe, the operational mastermind behind the president’s two White House victories.
“We shouldn’t just assume that the Obama voters will automatically come out for Democratic presidential candidates,” Plouffe told The New York Times after the Democrats’ midterm losses.
Democrats insist Obama can remedy that situation during his final two years in office and ensure that his coalition endures.
Aggressive moves on net neutrality and global warming have already reinvigorated liberals, and expansive action on immigration reform could help bring Hispanics back into the fold, they say.
There’s also hope among Democrats that the historic nature of a Clinton campaign could lead to a different, but still vibrant, electorate.
Strategists say a potential Clinton bid would likely generate outsized enthusiasm among young and single female voters, which could offset drops in other parts of the electorate.
“Hillary is going to have to build that excitement in the base the way the president did in 2008. Voters are going to have to truly believe in her path and her vision and get excited by what she stands for,” a former Obama campaign official said.
Clinton will have to avoid the notion that she’s the inevitable candidate, the former official added, but can build excitement by emphasizing her place in history as potentially the first woman president.
“Done right, I think that can really help her,” the former official said. “Women will love it, and so will other groups, including young voters.”