Barack Obama began the press conference he held the day after his party was crushed in the 2014 midterm elections by implying that the results were of questionable legitimacy because turnout had been so low—by some accounts, the lowest since 1942. “To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” he said. “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
The contention was ridiculous on its face. You cannot hear people who deliberately choose not to speak. Even so, Obama suggested that, had those non-voters voted, they would have done so in support of him and his party:
One of the things that I’m very proud of in 2008 and 2012, when I ran for office, was we got people involved who hadn’t been involved before. We got folks to vote who hadn’t voted before, particularly young people. And that was part of the promise. The excitement was, if you get involved, if you participate, if you embrace that sense of citizenship, then things change. And not just in abstract ways, in concrete ways. Somebody gets a job who didn’t have it before. Somebody gets health care who didn’t have it before. Or a student is able to go to college who couldn’t afford it before.
Obama believes that he and his party have done all these things—that they have helped someone get a job, get health care, go to college. If that were so, why on earth wouldn’t those very people go to the polls to reward the party that had done such wonderful things for them? Well, he explained, “sustaining that excitement, especially in midterm elections, has proven difficult—that sense of if you get involved, then you know, if you vote, then there’s going to be a big change out there.”
That is one way to look at it. The wrong way.
The voters to whom Obama was referring obliquely are between the ages of 18 and 29. That demographic group’s voting pattern since 2008 shows the error in the president’s analysis.
In 2008, Obama won under-30s by a margin of 2 to 1. That same cohort favored Democrats in 2010, but by a margin of 58 to 42—which is a drop of 11 percent. In his 2012 reelection, Obama brought the under-30 number up a little; they went for him 3 to 2. But that was still a 10 percent decline for him compared with 2008.
And in 2014? Under-30s voted 53 to 43 for the Democrats. So consider this pattern: Overall, from 2008 to 2014, the Obama-Democrat share of the youth vote fell by 20 percent.
Now, it is true that under-30s comprised 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 but only 13 percent in 2014. So let us be insanely generous and assume that those missing voters would have broken 3 to 2 for the Democrats as they did for Obama in 2012. By my calculation, those extra votes still wouldn’t have added enough to change the outcome in any of the eight Senate races in which Republicans took control of Democratic seats on election night. (Even in North Carolina, the closest of the races, Republican Thom Tillis would have edged out Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by about 18,000 votes.) In other words, give Obama his lost voters, and the 2014 wave would have broken in almost exactly the same way.
That is why these numbers suggest something very different from what the president thinks. They suggest that young people were wildly enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008, considerably less enthusiastic about him in 2012, and not enthusiastic at all about the Democratic Party he leads in 2014. The president described their failure to turn out thus: “When they look at Washington, they say nothing’s working and it’s not making a difference and there’s just a constant slew of bad news coming over the TV screen.” Not really. They lost their enthusiasm because of him.
That is even more apparent once you note that in several states, there was a substantial difference between the behavior of voters ages 25 to 29 and voters ages 18 to 24. In North Carolina, 25- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrat Kay Hagan by a margin of 59 to 34—while 18- to 24-year-olds only went 47 to 44 for Hagan. In Kentucky, the split was even more stark: The younger cohort favored Republican Mitch McConnell 53 to 42, while the slightly older group went for his Democratic challenger 52 to 43.
This older group went to the polls for the first time during Obama’s rock-star “hope and change” moment in 2008. The younger group came to political consciousness when Barack Obama was already serving as president. Perhaps for the 2008 voter, in these states, and in others, those who have participated only in Obama-era elections are considerably more likely to vote Republican than their older siblings. And again, due to gridlock, or disappointment, or because the GOP is very appealing to them. It, too, is because of him.
The Democrats running for the Senate knew this. It is why they did not want him to campaign for them, and why one of them steadfastly refused even to acknowledge having voted for Obama despite the fact that she had been a delegate at the 2012 Democratic convention. Behaving in this fashion actually ran counter to the conventional wisdom about the highly polarized American electorate that followed Obama’s reelection. According to this new wisdom, campaigns should no longer be dedicated to winning undecided voters, who are supposedly very few in number, but to turning out persuadable voters.
The term persuadable describes a person who is probably generally sympathetic to a candidate but doesn’t feel any drive to go out and vote for him. Getting these “persuadables” to the polls in 2012 was the key to Obama’s reelection triumph. For the first time, pollsters report, the Obama campaign was able to drag people to the ballot box who said they basically preferred Obama but measured their own eagerness to vote at 2 or 3 on a scale of 10. (It had been an axiom for decades that no matter whom voters claimed to support, only those who scored themselves at 4 or above would actually turn out.) The key persuadable constituency in 2012 was voters between the ages of 18 and 29. So despite Obama’s low approval rating, one might have thought he would have remained valuable on the campaign trail as a lure to the persuadable voters who had pulled him across the finish line. That is clearly what he believes. But those campaigns were not run by stupid people. They were run by professionals desperate to win—professionals who probably admire Barack Obama. They kept their distance because they had to. They knew the persuadables weren’t going to be persuaded this time. He had lost them.
The Republicans running against Democratic incumbents knew it, too. Every one of them highlighted the degree to which his Democratic rival was an Obama catspaw. As the Washington Post noted after the election, “Republicans had a simple plan: Don’t make mistakes, and make it all about Obama, Obama, Obama. Every new White House crisis would bring a new Republican ad. And every Democratic incumbent would be attacked relentlessly for voting with the president 97 or 98 or 99 percent of the time.”
Making the election a national referendum on the president hadn’t worked in 2012, and many of the wisest and most intellectually serious people on the right were concerned that it wasn’t going to work this time either—that the Republican candidates needed to set a positive and coherent agenda because, without one, they would not inspire enough people. But those campaigns weren’t run by stupid people either. They saw what the Democratic campaigns saw.
So why did the anti-Obama focus fail in 2012 but win in 2014? The president wants to believe it’s because he’s being blamed for Washington’s dysfunction. But consider just a partial list of horribles the American people have had to face since 2012.
ObamaCare went live in October 2013, and the billion-dollar website that was supposed to guide people through their choices died. Americans learned that the Veteran’s Administration had been falsifying data to hide its dreadful record of failed care. Border states were flooded with tens of thousands of children who had been led to believe that they (and eventually their parents) would be legalized after their horrific journeys. The Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that it had targeted groups hostile to the president, then denied it, and then claimed the emails detailing the actual events had somehow vanished. Americans were given contradictory and confusing details about how authorities were going to prevent the spread of Ebola inside the United States. After we were told the war on jihadist terror was basically a thing of the past, there came the rise of ISIS. The president erased his own “red line” when it came to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Vladimir Putin took a bite out of a neighboring country and is getting ready to take another. That is quite a record to take to the electorate.
No one believes that the Republican Party is popular. And yet, on Election Day, Republicans won eight new Senate seats (with a ninth on the way). The party will have its largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1946. Republicans reside in 31 of the nation’s 50 governor’s mansions, by far the highest number in modern times. In 24 states, the GOP holds the governorship and both houses of the state legislature; Democrats are in the same position in only six states. Republicans will now control 67 of the nation’s 98 state legislative chambers, up from 59. And all this despite the fact that no one believes that the Republican Party is popular.
The New York Times reported on election night that the president did not feel “repudiated.” At his press conference, Obama said the Republicans had had a “good night.” They had indeed, but only because he had been repudiated.