By JOHN HARWOOD - MARCH 31, 2014
WASHINGTON — If it were only President Obama’s flagging poll numbers, the problem for Democrats of how to mobilize core supporters to vote this fall would be bad enough. Midterm elections for an unpopular president’s party are almost always bleak.
But it is not only that. The very structure of the 21st-century national Democratic coalition makes its November turnout predicament bad, perhaps historically so.
“There’s never been a worse coalition for the purpose of a midterm election,” said David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. The ability of Democrats to counter the problem will help determine how politically difficult Mr. Obama’s last two years in the White House could become.
Turnout for American presidential elections (roughly six in 10 eligible voters in recent contests) is always higher than for midterm congressional elections (fewer than half). But the rate of falloff from one to the next varies for different groups of voters.
In 2012, exit polls showed, Mr. Obama won a second term by rolling up margins of 11 percentage points among women, 24 percentage points among voters ages 18 to 24, and 87 percentage points among blacks. Over the last four midterm elections, turnout by all three groups fell more from the previous presidential race than turnout by Republican-leaning men,
whites and those over 65.
Young voters have abandoned the midterm electorate at more than twice the rate of seniors. Hispanics, who favored Mr. Obama by a margin of 44 percentage points, have voted at just two-thirds the rate of whites. Unmarried women, the source of the Democratic advantage with women, vote less often than their married counterparts.
“I’m worried this could be a disaster,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
These patterns have not always hurt her party this badly. Retirees, for example, invariably cast ballots more often than younger voters. But as recently as the 2000 presidential race, they leaned Democratic.
And as recently as 1976, the gender gap did not exist. Blacks and Hispanics have traditionally voted less often than whites, but their share of the electorate — and the Democratic base — is much larger today.
Democrats have begun efforts to mitigate the damage, with their House and Senate campaign committees tripling investments in voter mobilization since the last election.
“When you’re looking at historic trends, you don’t agonize, you organize,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
With its sophisticated voter identification and mobilization programs, the 2012 Obama presidential campaign produced a more Democratic leaning electorate than many Republicans had thought possible. In 2014 battlegrounds like North Carolina and Colorado, vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents hope to capitalize on the results of those efforts
the way Terry McAuliffe did in winning the Virginia governorship last year.
But “just because they find these people doesn’t mean they have a message that will work” to turn them out, said Zac Moffatt, a Republican strategist who was an aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Mr. McAuliffe, for instance, had less success mobilizing young voters than he did with African-Americans.
Most of the crucial Senate races lie in battlegrounds so friendly to Mr. Romney that Mr. Obama did not contest them in 2012. Among those pivotal states are Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and Montana.
About 70 percent of House Democrats’ targeted races occur in four states Mr. Obama won (California, Illinois, New York and Florida). Only Florida was competitive enough to attract a full-blown Obama campaign.