Washington’s political handicappers have spoken: Tonight will be a massacre—a Night of the Long Knives for red-state Democrats.

Let’s hope they are wrong, and not just for partisan reasons. It’s always a small but delectable victory for democracy when the voters humble the political seers and entrail-readers. We’re reminded that running for office is more art than science, and that the people really are in charge after all.


What’s more, a Republican Senate takeover would almost certainly harden the political stalemate that has brought the U.S. government to a screeching halt. It would purge states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 of high-profile Democrats, more perfectly aligning ideological and party allegiances across the widening chasm between red and blue America. 

The problem is, while such ideological and partisan “cleansing” might be making our politics more homogenous from a philosophical and regional point of view, it is also making our country ungovernable. 

Democrats would be doubly damaged by the lopping off of a major part of their pragmatic wing. They’d lose not only control of the Senate, but also political figures who know how to appeal to moderate and independent voters and thus help keep the party centered. Without such talented pragmatists as Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuA decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ MORE (La.), Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganThe Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control Tillis wins North Carolina Senate primary Coronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 MORE (N.C.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (Alaska), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenators push for changes to small business aid Who should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? McConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus MORE (N.H.), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Tom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 MORE (Ark.), and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado MORE (Colo.), Democrats would be a more orthodox—and less interesting—party. 

And, most galling of all, a GOP sweep tonight would reward conservative Obama-haters and put firebrands like Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Overnight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves MORE in the driver’s seat.   

It’s a progressive nightmare, and Democrats are searching for explanations. The media is serving up a simple story-line: It’s all Obama’s fault. 

That’s not entirely wrong. With his job approval scraping rock bottom (40 percent), the president has become something of a millstone around the necks of red- and purple-state Democrats. That’s why we’ve seen more of Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe two infectious diseases spreading across America Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left MORE than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's self-interest is at odds with safe coronavirus policy Progressive youth groups issue demands for Biden ahead of general election Obama: Robust coronavirus testing and monitoring the key to reopening country MORE on the hustings in the battleground states. Six years into his presidency, and despite a rebounding economy, 70 percent of the public believe the country is on the wrong track. Some key voter groups that swooned over Obama in 2008 have soured on his cool and disengaged approach to leadership.  

So the president will have to take his lumps, but let’s not go overboard. Congressional Democrats are even less popular, and Republicans even less so. This suggests that deeper structural forces are also at work. 

Historically, midterm elections are seldom kind to sitting presidents, especially sixth-year elections. As Ron Brownstein reports in The National Journal, the president’s party has lost House and Senate seats in 19 of 28 midterm contests since 1900. There are, however, exceptions, including GOP gains in 2002. And Democrats bucked the trend in 1998, when President Clinton enjoyed a remarkable 64 percent approval rate. Like Obama, Clinton faced a hostile, Republican-controlled House that even tried to impeach him. To be fair, though, Clinton had the benefit of an economy that had been roaring for two years before the midterm. 

Midterm elections always draw fewer voters (roughly 40 percent compared to around 60 percent in presidential contests), and the most motivated voters usually want to register dissatisfaction with the way things are going. That falloff is now magnified by generational and racial realignments that have remade the party’s coalitions over the past two decades. 

The Democrats’ rainbow coalition consists of minorities, Millennials and women (mostly college-educated and single). Minorities and young voters are more likely to stay home in non-presidential years, while the Republicans’ white-gray coalition—blue collar, rural, married, older, and disproportionately male—has a stronger propensity to turn out.

Democrats take solace from the emergence of two very different electorates. It means that they can reverse GOP gains in 2016, when the bigger presidential electorate takes the field and they can bring the full demographic weight of their “coalition of the ascendant” to bear. Moreover, the Republicans will have many more Senate seats to defend in 2016, 24 of 34. 

But there’s a hitch: cratering support for Obama among two key components of his 2008 coalition, young voters and Hispanics. According to the Cook Report’s Amy Walter, in Colorado, the quintessential swing state, Latino approval of Obama’s job performance has fallen by 13 points since 2012, to a meager 51-42 edge. Incredibly, Obama is underwater with young voters in North Carolina, who just two years ago massively approved of his performance (70-20). Walter found similar patterns in other battleground states. 

Such trends spell trouble for Democrats in 2016. They suggest that the party’s next nominee can’t just rely on demography but will have to build a new progressive governing majority. To compensate for narrowing margins among Millennials and Hispanics, Democrats will need to do better among white working class and college-educated voters. And to regain the Senate, they’ll have to elect a new crop of pragmatists to replace those they might lose tonight. 

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.