The Other 47 Percent

Structural challenges made this year a difficult one for progressives. But strategic challenges did too.

A Closer Look At Tuesday’s Races Show Structural, But Also Strategic, Challenges

There’s no denying that Tuesday was a bad day for Democrats. On the morning after the election, we detailed a number of key issues at play in the race and a silver lining. Now, a closer analysis reveals that while structural obstacles were certainly a big reason for GOP gains, they were not the only reason. Public opinion and demography experts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin explain in a new Center for American Progress issue brief that deep voter pessimism and a lack of an economic agenda from Democrats also contributed to the voting outcomes. This provides an important lesson in the path forward.

The Structural Challenge: Democrats were hurt by the fact that states holding Senate elections this year were disproportionately small and conservative. With over two-thirds of the states having elections in 2014, one might expect that about two-thirds of the voting eligible population voted in the races that determined control of the Senate. But these 34 states had just 53 percent of the total United States voting population. That’s right: 47 percent of the country does not live in the states that just determined the new Senate majority.

The political make-up of the voters in 2014 Senate states leaned Republican as well, as this graphic spells out:


The Strategic Challenge: But these structural challenges don’t explain everything. Comparing the 2014 Senate state with the same states in 2012, Democrats did do worse this year. Mitt Romney’s margin of victory in these states was 2.4 percent in 2012. This year, the margin of victory for all Republican Senate candidates in 2014 was 4.3 percent. That is a 1.9 percent shift more Republican. And in governor’s races, which actually took place in states that leaned blue, Democrats did even worse: in 2012 Obama won these states by a margin of 3.9 percent, while Democratic candidates lost in those states this year by 5.5 percent. That’s 9.4 percent of voters — equivalent to 7 million votes — going toward the GOP.

In their new analysis, Teixeira and Halpin offer a critical evaluation and explanation of why this could be. After going through the exit polls and breaking down how different key constituencies voted, they conclude that “the path forward for Democrats seems straight.”

In order to maximize support among core constituencies and reach further into the Republican hold on white voters, they must develop and promote a sharp vision of economic equality and greater opportunity for those left out of the recovery. An agenda of job creation and investment; higher wages for workers; greater equality for women; college affordability and student-debt reduction; and strong family policies through paid leave, expanded child care support, and universal pre-K can attract a sizable chunk of the white working class, particularly among women and Millennials, and appeal to base voters who are economically pressed.

BOTTOM LINE: Structural challenges made this year a difficult one for Democrats. But strategic challenges connecting with voters anxious about their economic circumstances also offer lessons and provide a path forward going into 2016. Economic opportunity for all Americans, not just the wealthy few, is a message that resonates with voters. Now candidates and elected officials need to advocate for the progressive policies to make that a reality.

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