There wasn’t one comment that prompted this admonition to ourselves to not get cocky about one good election. It’s more that I noticed one too many references to how great we did and how overwhelming our win was, probably when I heard the host of a national talk radio program say Obama torched Romney, with no quotation marks because I’m sure I’m only paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close. The one benefit of losing is it forces you to take a hard look at what went wrong, at least once all the denial is out of the way. Victory tends to cover up problems. It’s hard to see what you did wrong when you did whatever you did and won. Then again, this is intended to be broader than just the presidential election, so there are plenty we lost.
Just to start a reality check, the Republican Party isn’t going to wither away, though there is certainly an opportunity to reduce it thanks to the dinosaurification of the GOP. What I meant, the short version, is we have an opportunity rather than an advantage. There is no guarantee new citizens or new young voters will lean Democratic like the new voters of recent elections. There’s no guarantee the Republicans won’t find a way to appeal to at least a larger minority of them. Since new voters tend to vote for the same party they voted for in their first few elections, we have an opportunity to build in a demographic advantage, but it’s not a given.
I’ll add to that and point out that no matter how big a win we enjoy or how many wins, the Republican dinosaurs will survive. The structure of our government leads to the development of two parties, so even if the GOP did do its best dinosaur-post-asteroid impression, somebody would seek an alternative power structure to the Democratic Party. So the remains of the Republicans would be there to be revived. Hopefully though, they won’t be like current Republicans. Might not even be conservative.
Speaking of conservatism, while we’re doing a reality check, don’t expect conservatism to go away. It would be nice if it gave up conspiracy theories in favor of reality, but in some form, it will be around. No matter how much conservative policies have disintegrated on contact with reality, political ideology comes to a significant degree from human psychology. So conservatism will always be with us and, sorry conservatives, liberalism will always be with you — even if one party went away. That has actually happened in fact, when the Federalist Party encouraged secessionism in New England during the War of 1812, and then the war ended with a big success and oops, no more Federalists. Everybody became a Democrat no matter what they thought. And no, it wasn’t a smoothly functioning party. They divided into factions and, surprise, organized into two parties.
All that is really just putting a cap on optimism (or, since Republicans have been on top sometimes and will be again, a floor under pessimism). While we’re giving ourselves a reality check, we need to look at some specifics from the 2012 election.
First off, Obama will have won by just 3.5-4% once all the ballots are counted (it’s been over a month and some states are still doing their first count, which makes me ask of opponents of election day registration, do you really prefer provisional ballots after seeing how they’re working out?). I hear some pundits saying that’s big for a presidential election, which confirms me in my opinion that some pundits are complete tossers. In any election, 3.5-4% is close. Maybe not recount-close, but certainly “we have a shot next time” close.
Yes I know, it’s the electoral college (EC) that decides the presidency, not the popular vote, but win the popular vote by a few points and you probably win the EC. If the next Republican can get 51% instead of 47%, he’ll probably win. So even though the Democratic candidate has won four of the last six elections, five of the last six in the popular vote (and yes, five out of six in the EC if Florida’s election had been honest, maybe six out if six if Ohio’s election had been honest), and there’s a supposed “Obama coalition” now, that’s no long-term grip on the presidency, necessarily. If the Republicans succeed in taking a few points off their deficit with non-white voters, they can win. While I expect Obama’s 39% among white voters is a floor, that could be wrong. A few more points among whites, and the Republican candidate can win. Or keep the percentages the same but improve white turnout, or get better at suppression of non-white voters, and the Republicans can win. Despite Republicans either being in denial about their problems or clueless about how to address them, they’re not that far away, in math terms anyway.
Next, I just want to point out that Democrats didn’t win because the polls said they’d win. Maybe that reality check should be given as well to Republicans still suspecting pollster bias, but I’m more interested in us. There was a side story to the election of pundits versus nerds. The data of the Obama analysts, the non-unskewed poll aggregators, and most pollsters, was right, while the anecdotes and opinions of pundits who persistently poo-pooed them were wrong. I admit it was fun not just that they found out on election night that they got it wrong, but it was obvious they were told they were wrong all through the campaign and just wouldn’t listen (not that any of them have lost any TV time over it). The liberal netroots routed for the data to beat the punditocracy, and enjoyed mocking the poll denialism of conservatives, but let’s b clear on something: we didn’t win just because we accepted the data. The data told us about the impending doom in 2010, and getting it right didn’t help. Maybe warnings were unheeded by too many people in campaign decision making positions. Can’t tell. There was a nerd versus pundit fight in 2010 too, but I don’t think the pundits knew about it.
I certainly think using what the data tell you rather than denying the bad news will sometimes allow us to fix mistakes in time, but let’s face it, sometimes all you get is to not be surprised on election night. If the Romney campaign had believed the data the last week, all it would have told them was they needed to work only on a speech starting with “I congratulate the president.” We don’t deserve any particular credit for trusting data that gave us good news. I do think though we can slap our own backs for not throwing Nate Silver out of the club of liberal news junkies for giving us dreadful news. I’m not sure how he became the data poster boy (I would guess other poll aggregators wonder the same thing, like TPM got it right too), but at least we didn’t treat the liberal who was right when he told liberals what they didn’t want to hear like conservatives treat conservatives who are right when they deliver the bad news.
Point being that while trusting the data sometimes offers a chance to fix problems, just rooting for the eventual winner in nerds versus pundits isn’t why we won, and continuing to trust the data won’t guarantee future wins.
Switching to the Senate, the odds of holding the Senate are better in 2014 than they were in 2012, based on which party has to defend how many seats and the size of the Democratic majority. But there is still more odds-defying to be done. Democrats have to defend 20 of the 33 seats up in 2014, and the early analysis I linked to rates more Democratic seats as vulnerable. They can lose four seats and keep the outright majority (that is, without depending on the VP to break ties). That’s better than 2012, where the Democrats defended 23 of 33 and could lose only two. Still, taking the Senate is quite doable for the Republicans, and at least some have learned the folly of nominating fools and crazies. Good news, looks like it reverses in 2016, when the Republicans have to defend probably 22 seats.
Next, and a case could be made that this is the biggest reality check for us, we were unable to take back the US House despite winning most of the votes. It’s not a huge popular vote margin and it was enough to flip a few seats, but the Republicans still have a hefty majority. No wonder they feel like they don’t have to give much in negotiating with the president. The favored explanation for failing to take the House has been gerrymandering, but that’s only part of it, and knowing the problem isn’t the same as solving it. So OK, the House has been gerrymandered — that just means taking the House is tough. Doesn’t mean we don’t have to work on figuring out how to do it.
Nor is that the only problem with the House. Republicans held an advantage even before the gerrymandering. If redistricting was strictly non-partisan and respected municipal boundaries, the simple fact of Democrats being concentrated in big cities and inner suburbs means it’s hard to divide us among districts that aren’t deeply blue, while Republicans’ preferences of outer suburbs and rural areas means there are plenty of ways to draw districts red enough to make them safe, but light red enough to leave enough Republicans for other districts. The effect is Republican seats are less safe than Democratic seats, but there are a lot more safe Republican seats.
All that is even before incumbency which, judging by how House Democrats won by less than Obama, means some small, but big enough, percentage of voters voted for whoever was the incumbent. Not that I want to concede the Republicans get a permanent majority, but maybe the biggest challenge for Democrats is the job of trying to win without just waiting for the next redistricting — and even then, the election of the legislatures that will handle redistricting after the 2020 census will be elected under the current gerrymandered districts. If for no other reason than this, the GOP is far from dead. They simply don’t need majorities of voters to win majorities of seats.
As long as I’ve brought up legislatures, let’s take them next. They’re just as gerrymandered as the House seats, and there’s the same problem of Democrats living in more densely populated areas that reduce their representation even without gerrymandering. We’re seeing that most of the damage Republicans are doing in the wake of the 2010 disaster is at the state level. Even if Democrats can take back governorships where Republicans have been stripping their opponents of their basic rights, that will just stop further damage. The Republicans look like they’ll keep holding enough legislative seats to stop the reassertion of rights or the overturning of any other noxious policies.
In short, sorry to rain on our own parade, we have a massive problem with anything that’s districted. Even if I’m not persuasive that we have a problem at the presidential level, Congress and legislatures should be all the proof anyone needs that not only didn’t we win as big as we thought, but we have a bigger problem than can be solved by just waiting for demographic trends to solve our problem.
The best plan clearly is to force Democrats to move out of cities to dilute the safely red seats. Who won’t be willing to move just to improve the odds of winning a legislative seat? OK, maybe there are flaws in that plan. We may just have to do better selling our ideas.
Then there’s the money. Big billionaire money. We got a chuckle at how much the crank billionaires and dark money groups spent for so few victories, and it sounds like donors were pretty upset about losing the presidency, but that doesn’t mean their money meant nothing. How could Obama get such a narrow win against such a lousy candidate as Romney? Obama slightly outraised and outspent Romney, but the independent money was heavily Republican — maybe it did work. Maybe the big money was why Romney got as close as he did. Democrats defied the odds by picking up a couple Senate seats, which entailed winning close races, but maybe the money was why some winners barely won. Maybe the money spent down the ballot was an important reason Republicans held on to Congress and so many legislatures. We really don’t know how to measure it.
Above all, maybe they spent their money inefficiently. Clearly efficiency isn’t the highest priority for people with unlimited funds, but still, they might get better at advertizing. I’d like to think, and I actually suspect, they hit ceilings in the effectiveness of TV ads. But maybe they’ll actually get better at it. That sort of money behind a better candidate than Romney is scary.
Though to argue against my own point, it did occur to me tonight, when I heard someone who ran an independent group talk about how they can’t coordinate, I realized that while I doubt they don’t coordinate, the independent groups aren’t run by or accountable to the candidate’s campaign. With the GOP’s greater reliance on outside money, maybe that’s why they’ve become the less organized party. Could be all the nuts they’ve attracted too, but maybe the money being outside candidate or party control is part of their problem. If Romney had a message problem, maybe it was because too many people had partial control of the message.
Speaking of Romney, don’t speak of Romney. I have to sympathize with reporters still assigned to cover him, but I don’t have to read them. Romney has no base. He generates no ideas. He’s not a candidate for anything in the future. Republicans don’t even like him. They just couldn’t find a decent candidate. Unless the topic is how the campaign was run, he just doesn’t matter. Pounding Romney became a habit from necessity, and maybe it’s hard to break, but he’s not worth our time anymore. His latest effort at pretending to be a real person might be amusing, but dwelling on it doesn’t flip votes any more. He’s a distraction for us. At this point, going after Mitt Romney is as useful as going after Thomas Dewey (“Dewey defeats Truman”). Focus instead on maximizing our advantages and minimizing theirs.
Hmm, 51%-47%: All right, I admit it, I can’t resist the schadenfreude over Romney’s ironic 47%. His percentage is a bit more than that and has to be rounded, but still … tee hee.
OK, back to work.