The Democratic Gamble: Party pins all post-Obama hopes on the Rising Electorate

Obama’s decision to move forward with a highly controversial executive order creating legal status for millions of illegal immigrants has confirmed the obvious in the minds of many analysts: The Democratic Party is pushing all their chips in on the assumption that the “rising electorate” is going to ensure the party maintains control of the White House in 2016.

That “rising electorate,” a group which was touted in 2002 as the key to the Emerging Democratic Majority which has yet to materialize, consists of younger voters and single women, but also primarily of an expanding bloc of minority voters.

“As a political matter,” Politico reported on Friday, “the president’s wager is this: that the voters with the longest memories will be those in the rapidly growing, next-generation national electorate, heavily inflected by socially progressive young people and a growing Latino population.”

Politico observed that red state Democrats will find it cold comfort that the White House has staked the Democratic Party’s future on a move that is highly unpopular in areas of the country like the Deep South and the Rust Belt, but the assumption is that the party will come out ahead with the increased support in the Southwest, the Mountain West, and even the “New South.”

Other 2016-minded Democrats hasten to explain the electoral upside for their party: Think of states like Florida and Virginia, they say, places that once leaned conservative but have moved rapidly toward the center (and perhaps beyond) with the expansion of nonwhite communities in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and cities such as Tampa and Orlando. Or, for Senate Democrats, look to the two top states in which the party will play defense in 2016 — Nevada and Colorado — where the dominance of Las Vegas-based Clark County and the diversifying Denver suburbs hold the keys to reelection for Sens. Harry Reid and Michael Bennet.

Even more optimistic Democrats say: Consider states such as Georgia and Arizona, currently red states where the trend lines of population change are likely to let a strong Democratic presidential candidate not named Obama compete in 2016. The party would need strong, motivating issues to bring out often-discouraged minority voters; for Hispanic-Americans, immigration certainly qualifies.

It is an ambitious strategy, and one which even Democratic strategists concede is particularly dangerous is off-year and midterm election cycles. The thinking inside Democratic circles is, however, that this approach will ensure that the big prize remains beyond Republicans’ reach for a generation or more.

It’s an optimistic view. Perhaps a bit too optimistic.

Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende took a look at how Democrats performed in the midterms this week and observed that, conventional wisdom aside, Democratic candidates and incumbents across the country were not routed just because Barack Obama’s coalition failed to show up at the polls.

On Election Day 2012, the president had a 49.9 percent job approval rating and a 47.4 percent disapproval rating. In 2014, by contrast, the president had a 42 percent job approval rating, and a 53.3 disapproval rating. Notably, this isn’t ascribable to likely voter screens; the highest the president has been in polls of adults since June was 45 percent.

This low job approval interacted with state partisanship more heavily than it did with state demographics. After all, Obama was popular enough in 2012 in places such as Montana and North Dakota to enable Democratic Senate victories. If Obama’s job approval had been 54 percent in the overall 2014 electorate, rather than 44 percent (as exit polls indicated), the Republican purple state wins would not have occurred, and some of the red states would have elected blue senators.

We might even go a step further and inquire if perhaps what is frequently being called the “presidential” electorate is really simply the “Obama” electorate, something political scientists like John Sides have questioned, and something that Democratic strategists are increasingly fretting about.

Regardless, the Democrats’ problem in 2014 was not simply the map, nor was it mostly a demographic/turnout issue. It was an unpopular Democratic president. If Hillary Clinton (or whoever) does not perform better among these groups in 2016 (and she/he might!), the best turnout machine in the world will not save her or him.

“No matter how you slice it, demographic changes in the midterm electorate account for a relatively small portion of the Democrats’ problems in 2014,” Trende contended. “The real difference between 2012 and 2014 isn’t changes in the demographic makeup of the electorate. It is changes in the way that demographic groups voted.”

It is possible that no amount of pandering to demographic blocs or client groups can entirely overcome the natural headwinds that the Democratic nominee will encounter in the effort to retain control of the White House following a two-term president of the same party. This makes intuitive sense, as well. Even a small shift in the white vote from one party to the other will result in a vastly greater number of votes than will a large shift in support among Hispanics. The proportionality simply isn’t there… yet.

Democrats are putting a lot of eggs in one relatively fragile basket. Politico is right to characterize this as a gamble at best.