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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 24: Limits of an Angry Base

As Democrats (quite appropriately) focus on ways to boost turnout this November, there’s often, in my opinion, an excessive emphasis on “voter enthusiasm” as opposed to more mechanical ways of getting out the vote. But some analysts go even further, as I discussed today at Washington Monthly.

[A]t the Daily Beast today, comedian/activist Dean Obeidallah, in what I assume was not a comedic take, offers an even more dubious variation on the “enthusiasm” theory: the “anger” theory. Angry voters, he asserts, win midterms, and since Republican voters are really angry right now, Democrats are going to get waxed if they don’t get angry, too.
Obeidallah’s data set for his “angry voters win midterms” hypothesis is limited to the last to midterms. In 2006, voters angry at Bush turned out; in 2010, voters angry at Obama turned out. Trouble is, there’s not a big difference in the kind of voters who voted in this two midterms with such different results. The most important difference I can see is that in 2006 over-65 votes preferred Democrats by a 50-48 margin; in 2010 they preferred Republicans by 59-38, reflecting a sharp trend that first manifested itself in 2008. The partisan composition of the electorate in 2010 was marginally more pro-Republican than in 2006, but at some point these sorts of comparison become almost entirely circular: if the voters who turn out tilt Republican, then “Republican turnout” is up. That’s not to say a different electorate is appearing.
More to the point, even if Obeidallah is right in arguing that “anger” is key to midterm turnout and/or victory, there’s an especially germane difference between ’16 and ’10: the party in control of the White House, and thus (invariably) the primary object of voter unhappiness. This, and not some sort of mathematical law, is why parties controlling the White House, particularly when the economy isn’t doing well, tend to lose ground in midterms, and especially second midterms.
So what Obeidallah is really arguing for isn’t a sudden realization among Democrats that anger is powerful, but a very difficult strategy of convincing voters to be angry at the party that does not control the White House, while presumably remaining non-angry at the White House itself. That is an extremely roundabout way of describing what is often called a “two futures” election, where voters resist the natural tendency to make their vote a “referendum” on the status quo, and instead vote on their future policy preferences.
There are exactly two precedents for this sort of appeal actually succeeding. One, the most relevant, is unfortunately pretty distant in time: Harry Truman’s 1948 “Do-Nothing Congress” attack on the GOP, which (a) wasn’t a midterm, and (b) was nestled between two really bad midterms for Democrats. The second, in 1998, is relevant insofar as voters appeared to have been interested in rebuffing congressional GOP overreach mostly attributable to the Clinton impeachment effort. But it’s less relevant because the economy was booming and Clinton’s job approval ratings were over 60%.
So there’s not much evidence Democrats will win any anger-fest in 2014. That’s not to say, of course, that they should not spend a great deal of time and money reaching out to their “base” and encouraging them to vote via a combination of “happy” messages about Obama’s accomplishments and “unhappy” messages about the damage a Republican Congress might do to them. Perhaps even more importantly, Democrats need to let voters who lean their way know where and when and how to vote, and that sitting this one out isn’t acceptable.

In truth, there’s no simple Democratic strategy for ’14. Yes, swing voters will be relatively sparse, but they matter. Yes, “base” turnout efforts will have both a technological and a message component. Yes, “populist” issues like the minimum wage and Medicaid expansion will be useful both with swing and base voters. And yes, different strokes will work with different folks in some parts of the country. But the search for a single bullet is probably a waste of time.

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