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Democrats' 2013 Drop-Off Problem

Democrats' 2013 Drop-Off Problem

By Sean Trende - December 4, 2013

Probably the most jarring election story of 2013 was the successful recall of two Democratic state senators in Colorado. Both represented districts that had voted for President Obama by wide margins: In the recall, Angela Morse ran 15 points behind the president, while John Morse (pictured) ran 12 points behind him.

These were extreme cases: low-turnout recall elections where the pro-recall forces were unusually energized by the gun issue. But they highlight what is probably the most troubling indicator for Democrats right now as we inch toward the midterm-election season: The drop-off in Democratic performance in elections this year -- Democrats have been running three to five points behind Obama’s 2012 showing with surprising consistency.

To start out, I examined elections for federal office and statewide offices where both parties competed. It’s not a huge data set: We had four statewide elections (three in Virginia and one in New Jersey), two Senate elections (New Jersey and Massachusetts), and three House elections (Illinois’ 2nd District, Missouri’s 8th, and South Carolina’s 1st). Further complicating things, there are some obvious outliers here: Chris Christie’s unusually strong gubernatorial run in New Jersey, E.W. Jackson’s unusually weak run for lieutenant governor in Virginia, and Mark Sanford’s scarred House candidacy in South Carolina.

Regardless, the only two Republicans who ran behind Mitt Romney’s poll numbers were Sanford and Jackson. The Democrats in the other seven races all ran behind Obama, by an average of 3.6 percentage points (median = 3.1 points). (Please note that these numbers refer to absolute standings, not the point spread; e.g., if Obama won 53.6 percent in a jurisdiction, the Democrat on average would expect to receive 50 percent of the vote. Two-party vote -- i.e., excluding third parties -- is used throughout.)

Even if we drop our outlier-ish races (Christie, Jackson and Sanford), the average Democrat ran 3.4 percentage points behind Obama on average; the median decline in Democratic vote share is 3.4 as well.

We can enlarge our data set, however. Of 100 House of Delegates races in Virginia, there were 43 where both a Republican and Democrat ran. The latter ran ahead of Obama in only seven of those (using data helpfully compiled by DailyKos Elections). We see a drop-off similar to the other numbers in Democratic performance: four points on average, with a median drop-off of 4.2 percent.

In New Jersey, the down-ticket races look even worse for Democrats. There were 38 state Senate races where both a Republican and Democrat ran, and the Democrats ran, on average, 8.6 percentage points behind the president (nine points median). Only four of the 38 Democrats ran ahead of Obama.

It was a similar picture in the Assembly races. In contests where two Democrats and two Republicans were running (in New Jersey, each Senate district also sends two Assembly members to Trenton), the two Democrats never exceeded Obama’s vote shares in their district. The average drop-off was 8.4 points while the median was 9.3. Taken together and compared to the results in Virginia and nationwide, the New Jersey Senate and House results suggest that Christie actually did have some coattails (though they weren’t large enough to translate to seats). The median district in the New Jersey legislature had given Obama a little less than 60 percent of the vote; Republican had a serious hill to climb there.

What about the rest of the country? There have been 40 special elections in the past year where both a Republican and Democrat have run (not counting the Colorado recalls). Things get a little dicey here because DailyKos Elections’ calculations of Obama’s 2012 performance in state legislative districts are still a work in progress. Only 27 of the 40 districts where special elections have been held have been completed, and those districts skew Northern and blue (the data are complete for California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Washington and Wisconsin); Texas has made its information available separately.

Still, looking only at these 27 races, Democrats have run 6.8 points behind Obama, with a median drop-off of 4.8 points. In California, home to a number of purplish-blue House seats, the average is 10.8 (11.8 median), suggesting potential problems with Hispanic turnout (in a recent Texas special election in a heavily Hispanic district, the Democrat ran 16 points behind Obama).

I went ahead and attempted to estimate the remaining 13 districts using Dave’s Redistricting App. It only has 2008 numbers, so I tried to estimate the president’s 2012 vote share by applying the statewide swing from 2008 to 2012 to the districts. This method is imperfect, since the swing in the president’s vote isn’t uniform across any given state, but in theory the errors should cancel out.

The average decline in Democratic vote share drops to 3.3 points, largely because of outsized Democratic performances in a pair of Kentucky seats and a seat in southwestern Missouri. But the median decline remains roughly the same as we’ve seen in other locales: 4.8 points.

Taken together, of the 170 contested elections that have been held this year for state legislative seats, for federal office, or for statewide office, the Democrat ran ahead of President Obama’s 2012 showing in only 27 races. By contrast, the Democrat ran more than 10 points behind the president’s showing in 47 races. On average, Democrats ran 5.9 percentage points behind the president, with a median drop-off of 6.4. Even if we knock a point off of these numbers to account for the Chris Christie effect in many of these races, that’s still a big decline.

What does this mean for 2014? Possibly nothing. There is a lot of football left to be played, the president’s job approval rating could rally significantly, the Democrats could become enthused, and drop-off could become a non-issue.

But if that doesn’t happen, Democrats have a real headache coming on. Let’s assume they can expect a drop-off of four to five points from Obama’s 2012 performance, all other things being equal. Twenty-eight House Democrats occupy seats where Obama won less than 55 percent of the vote. More disturbingly for Mr. Jackson’s Party, 13 Senate seats fall into this category. This is consistent with what we’ve seen in polling: Democrats putting up terrible numbers in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina, while races in states like Michigan and Iowa are looking surprisingly tight.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Democrats will lose all of these races -- though the use of medians suggests that some Democrats will run more than five points behind the president’s 2012 showing as well. Turnout should be higher in midterm elections than in off-year or special elections, and that will mitigate the damage. No one is projecting double-digit losses in the Senate, or even the House right now. But if the drop-off problem persists, these scenarios become something to consider. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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