Dan Balz

By Dan Balz
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If President Obama’s 2012 campaign was known for anything, it was its voter mobilization operation, said to be the most sophisticated ever assembled in a presidential campaign. Which makes David Plouffe’s comments over the weekend all the more telling for Democrats as they look nervously toward the November midterm elections.

When Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in Florida’s 13th Congressional District a week ago, Democratic leaders explained away the outcome by arguing that the district tilted heavily in favor of the GOP in midterm and especially special elections. Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that Republicans had a 13-point turnout advantage and that Democrats had made up almost all of that ground, only to fall a few points short.

Plouffe, who was Obama’s campaign manager in 2008 and oversaw the reelection bid as White House senior adviser, put the onus back on the Democrats. Democrats didn’t lose the special election because the Republicans had an insurmountable advantage in the district. They lost because they couldn’t get enough voters — the ones who backed Obama in 2012 — to the polls. Plouffe called the loss a “screaming siren” for the fall. As he put it, “We have a turnout issue.”

The independent Cook Political Report, which gives every congressional district a partisan index, rates the Florida district only as narrowly Republican in its leaning, an “R-plus-1” rating. Of the 435 districts, the Cook team rates more than 200 as more Republican than Florida’s 13th.

Districts like Florida’s 13th may look more Republican in off-year elections than in presidential years, but as Plouffe pointed out, that’s because Democrats have a turnout problem in those midterm elections. The Democrats’ coalition includes groups of voters who are simply less likely to show up for midterm elections. Younger voters turn out at lower rates in midterm elections than older voters. Single women are less likely to vote than married women.

At the beginning of each midterm election cycle, Democrats vow to do a better job of getting their voters to the polls. But when history (a president’s party generally loses seats in midterm elections) and the political winds are blowing in the wrong direction, they’ve fallen short.

That was the case in 2010, when Republicans made historic gains in the House just two years after Obama and the Democrats celebrated his 2008 victory as a sign that the pendulum was swinging permanently in their direction.

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