Why Can’t Democrats Close Out Elections?

On Tuesday, Virginians will be choosing a governor, and the stakes are very high. Not only will this be viewed as a real test of the ability to resist Il Trumpe and ‘Trumpism’ (which is just a purer form of Palinism), but if Gillespie wins, Republicans will likely gerrymander Virginia, such that Democrats won’t be able to regain control until 2032.

So if you live in Virginia, please vote for Northam, despite whatever misgivings you have about the man: Gillespie will be much, much worse. I hope Northam wins, and there’s some evidence based on absentee balloting that Democratic turnout will be high; it also appears that the undecideds could break for Northam*. I really don’t want to write a post-mortem this week on why Democrats lost again. We need real victories, not symbolic ones.

But Northam is part of a long-standing general trend that is very disturbing. As much as I dislike Andrew “Science tells me black people are stupid” Sullivan, he is, unfortunately, correct about the trajectory of the Virginia gubernatorial race (boldface mine):

Northam seems to me almost a classic Democratic politician of our time. I have no idea what his core message is (and neither, it seems, does he); on paper, he’s close to perfect; his personality is anodyne; his skills as a campaigner are risible; and he has negative charisma. More to the point, he is running against an amphibian swamp creature, Ed Gillespie, and yet the Washington lobbyist is outflanking him on populism. Northam’s ads are super lame, and have lately been largely on the defensive, especially on crime, culture, and immigration. He hasn’t galvanized minority voters, has alienated many white voters, and has failed to consolidate a broader anti-Trump coalition. In Virginia, Trump’s approval rating is 38/59, but Northam is winning only 81 percent of the disapprovers, while Gillespie is winning 95 percent of the approvers. Northam’s early double-digit lead has now collapsed to within the margin of error.

The last sentence is what worries me: this seems to happen a lot to Democratic candidates. Not in gerrymandered districts (we’ll return to this point), but in competitive races, Democrats often have comfortable leads that they then blow (e.g., Martha Coakley in Massachusetts). While some of this might be outlier polls and regression to the mean (i.e., an overstated lead), we almost never see this happening to Republicans (I write almost because I don’t want to make an absolute statement, but it’s rare enough that I can’t think of one). It’s a disturbing pattern, and it raises the obvious question: why can’t Democrats close out races? Why can’t they gain a lead and hold it?

(We’ll ignore for now that the converse of a surging Democrat, overcoming a massive Republican lead, is incredibly rare.)

The one exception, despite his other faults, in recent years was Obama. He didn’t get large leads (for the obvious reason), but he did hold them and finish well.

So, here in no particular order (I don’t pretend to have a well-thought out answer) are possible reasons:

  1. Most Democrats don’t have extremely strong support from the base, which is minorities, labor Democrats, and what used to be called liberal Democrats. The racism directed at Obama convinced liberal Democrats to turn out, and African-Americans didn’t want to see him lose, so those groups didn’t become disaffected (labor wasn’t that excited in 2012, and it showed). But without that, these groups, which have been treated shabbily (by Obama too), just aren’t quite as enthusiastic. When the Republican counter-assault begins, they just don’t feel like defending the candidate as strongly, in everything from private conversations to donations and canvassing.
  2. Due to gerrymandering, Democratic political consultants don’t have to win close races very often: they simply don’t know how to do this.
  3. Republicans commit mistakes that offend voters outside of their base, while Democrats commit mistakes that offend their base (e.g., bashing teachers unions, leaving your black running mate off of your campaign mailers). This matters, especially in off-year elections, where turning out voters who are very unlikely to switch allegiance is critical. Given the increasing polarization of the public, particularly the voting public, this depresses support for Democrats over time. The odds of any candidate in any party not saying or doing stupid things during the course of a campaign are pretty close to zero. If a Democrat has to run an error-free race to win a close race, victories in these races are going to be extremely rare.
  4. When things start to go south for Democrats, much of the vocal base gets stupid. By stupid I mean, rather than returning to the things that helped build the lead, the vocal supporters too often turn the race into a personality contest: Democrat X is a good person (and look at his resume!), Repubican Y is awful. This might be true, but in a country where one-third of white voters are highly prejudiced, it’s clear awfulness isn’t a deathknell. By a long shot.
  5. Democrats too often don’t excite their base, and the base is hurting. To the extent that campaigns are run by people who are not middle and lower-middle class (notice I didn’t write white middle and lower-middle class), they don’t focus on things that will make their voters’ lives better. Not less awful, but better. Policy, in broad strokes, does matter, as a recent poll of Ohioan black voters and non-voters indicates. Or as we say around here, people have to like this crap.
  6. Democrats don’t know how to have negative messages (‘my opponent is a monster’) reinforce positive messages (‘here is my easy-to-understand monster slaying policy’). At various times in campaigns, a candidate will have to send positive or negative messages. For too many Democrats, these messages do not reinforce each other. Running away from economic populism does not help with this, as that’s an obvious way to toggle between positive and negative messages: ‘I will put a chicken in every pot’ segues nicely into ‘my opponent wants to EAT ALL UR CHICKENS (and drink your milkshake)’.
  7. A bad ground game. Too much money is spent on TV adds (where consultants make their money), and not enough on voter turnout and outreach.
  8. Related to the previous point, the Democratic Party is a brand, not a human institution for most people. Movements rely on human connections, and the Democratic Party isn’t a movement.
  9. Democratic candidates don’t nationalize elections. They need to tie local Republicans to the known awfulness of national Republicansthey are part of the same party after all.

Regardless, in you’re in Virginia, please vote for Northam for governor on Tuesday.

*A poll released a couple of days ago indicates that 17% of black respondents were unsure about whom they supported. While the good news is that they probably won’t break for Trump (and even with that poor showing, Northam was still ahead), this is a problem for Democrats. Black voters are not enthusiastic (and, no, I’m not ‘blaming black people’, I’m blaming the Democratic Party for doing a shitty job).

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4 Responses to Why Can’t Democrats Close Out Elections?

  1. Min says:

    Good points! 🙂

    BTW, I am not a Democrat. I am an anti-Republican, ever since Katrina.

    I would change the “can’t” in the headline to “don’t”.

    To voter turnout and outreach I would add voter registration. The Republicans care about taking their opponents off the voter rolls, the Democrats don’t care much about getting them on.

  2. plch says:

    not really related but can you help me a bit? I frequent a very good blog whose commentariat many progressives women that seems to hate Sanders, they consider him an old school leftists who is anti-woman and racist (at least very patronizing toward POC) and not caring a little bit about LGTB people. A recent commenter wrote that according to Sanders the Clinton’s work for the right of children and women was not progressive because did not focused on men while he said that it wasn’t necessary to be pro women reproductive right to be progressive. No citations offrered. I’m following Sanders from abroad and I cannot find anything about Sanders speaking about Clinton’s work on Women’s right. Could you help me to find anything? thank you in advance and sorry to bother you.

  3. Joe Shelby says:

    Well, in spite of how this leveled up, turn out made a difference and turnout among minorities (especially hispanics) seems to have been higher than average for an off-season election. Seems Gillespie’s rhetoric against immigration in this last month might have galvanized the white voters who answered the polls in the last week or so, but also galvanized the hispanics in Prince William and Loudoun (the latter specifically targeted by Gillespie in a “Sanctuary City” rant) into coming out to take him down.

    VA Beach City flipped, after losses in 2013 and 2016. The House is almost even (at least 2 races are getting recounts). With VA Senate elections in 2 years (and the Senate always being close to 50-50) there’s odds on a flip just in time to address the results of the 2020 census and perhaps end the gerrymandering at both the VA Senate level and at the US Congressional level where VA Democrats had 16,000 more votes than Republicans but are only sending 4 representatives to Republican’s 7.

    That said, overconfidence is often an issue with Democrats after a victory like this.

  4. Art says:

    IMHO the difference between Republican and Democrat in this matter is the presence, or the lack of, a story. The GOP has manufactured stories that flatter the biases of their base, explain away their weakness, and greatly benefit those most capable of supporting their cause, the very wealthy. The Democrats, seduced by the siren song of catering to wealthy capitalists, water down their unique message of one-man-one-vote, civil rights for all, protection of labor and the little guy, political dependency on numbers, more fairness and moving toward greater justice even if we don’t always get to the summit of either.

    The GOP caters to the crowd’s inner bully, winner by any means, winners in a tribe of losers. Big fish in a little pond with pretensions of being rich and powerful, and dominate. It is a coherent vision. Like believing that alcohol is the way to happiness and deciding that, because more is always better, that chugging three bottles of tequila is a good start. It is a coherent story, but a fatal one if taken too close to heart.

    It is the same with the rest of the conservative dogma. Trust that markets are self correcting and self-cleaning is a coherent argument, even as it doesn’t work. Blind faith in the self-cleaning nature of markets poisoned the entire system. But then a powerful and controlling central government, a government that by definition can do no good, saved the day.

    The GOP has all the good stories even as they present an almost completely wrong picture of how things work. They can get elected but not govern. Democrats have all the answers to explain how thing work, but no coherent story to hang it on. They can govern, but have a hard time getting elected.

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