The meme of the past week or two in my circles is that the Democrats are screwed. Not necessarily in terms of the presidential election, which, one year out, their front-runner is reasonably well-positioned to win. But everywhere else, from Congress on down to dogcatcher.
Matt Yglesias kicked this off over at Vox on October 19, arguing that while the presidency obviously matters, “there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republican hands.” Democrats, he wrote, have no plan to do anything about this.
People panicked, and the Twitter cyclone hit. Then came Tuesday’s elections, which from Kentucky to Houston seemed to confirm the thesis. Then Lee Drutman followed up in Vox agreeing with Yglesias and citing research suggesting that all this was happening because—how to put this politely?—low-information voters toward the lower end of economic spectrum vote according to an ideology that doesn’t align with their economic status. He means white working-class people who vote Republican. And on the website of Democracy, the journal I edit, Nathan Pippinger responded to Drutman by writing that Democrats are in trouble not because of “false consciousness among working-class voters, but because conservatives’ state-level policies helped to undermine the paths through which those voters might become more involved in the political process.” He means mostly unions. But he basically buys the future of “liberal disappointment.”
Wow. Is it really as bad as all that? No, it’s not. And here are the two main reasons why.
First: The party that controls the presidency for eight years almost always gets killed at the state level over the course of those eight years. And it stands to reason—if people are unhappy with the way things are going, which they typically are about something or other, they’ll vote for the out-of-power party.
So political scientist Larry Sabato has studied this question going back to FDR’s time and found that every two-term presidency (he’s counting things like the Kennedy-Johnson period from 1960-68 as a single two-term presidency) except one has taken a huge beating at the congressional and state levels. You’ve perhaps read recently that during Barack Obama’s term, the Democrats have lost 913 state legislative seats. That’s a hell of a lot, but it’s not that crazily out of line with the average since FDR/Truman, which is 576. Only Ronald Reagan managed to avoid such losses—the GOP actually gained six state legislative seats during his years, which was the time when the Dixiecrats and some Northern white ethnics started becoming Republicans.
Sabato’s piece, which ran last December in Politico, is even headlined “Why Parties Should Hope They Lose the White House.” You win at 1600, you start losing everywhere else. Granted the Obama-era losses are unusual. I’d suppose they’re mostly explained by the lagging economy and stagnant wages. Race has to have something to do with it, too, and Tea Party rage, and of course the fact that Democrats don’t vote in off-year elections. Indeed this last factor may be the biggest one, because the Democratic Party has become more and more reliant in recent years on precisely the groups of voters who have long been known not to participate as much in off-year elections—minorities, young people, single women.
So sure, it blows to look at a map like the one embedded in Yglesias’s piece and see all that red indicating total Republican control in some state capitals where that shouldn’t really be the case: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. And it blows harder for the people who live there, although obviously a majority of them don’t think so.
But I would make a couple quick arguments here. First, 2014 and especially 2010 were unique election years, with high unemployment in 2010 and high-octane right-wing fury in both. That flipped some state houses and executive mansions that will return to the blue column eventually, in more normal times.
Second, there are a lot of blue states that still elect Republican governors, whereas there aren’t many red states that will elect a Democrat. Three presidential-level red states have Democratic governors (Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia), and they’re about the only ones you could imagine doing so as you look down the list. Whereas nine blue states have Republican governors. Most of those governors are comparatively moderate, and it doesn’t really change the fundamental nature of Massachusetts that it elects a Republican governor some of the time.
But—the party affiliation of the man or woman in the White House does change the fundamental nature of the United States. And that brings us to my second reason why the Democrats aren’t yet finished. They have the presidency. What did Elvis Costello say—“don’t bury me cuz I’m not dead yet”? Well, you’re not doomed yet as long as you’re living in the White House.
Let me ask you this question. Assuming this Sabato correlation between White House control and losses at other levels holds up, how many of you Democrats reading this would take this deal: Democrats lose the White House next year and in 2020 in exchange for, say, 1) retaking control of the House of Representatives in 2022 and 2) picking up 576 state legislative seats over the next eight years?
I guess some Democrats would take that deal, but I think a small minority, and rightly so. Losing the White House means a 7-2 conservative Supreme Court majority for 30 more years. That could well mean, would likely mean, a decision in the next few years overturning same-sex marriage, and a dozen other horrors, from campaign finance to corporate power to religious issues to civil rights matters to a number of Fourteenth Amendment-related issues including Roe v. Wade. It means, combined with GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, God knows what legislatively; the end of the federal minimum wage? A flat tax, or at least a radically reduced top marginal rate? Entitlement “reform”? And don’t forget not just what they’d do, but what they’d undo. It means repeal of Obamacare, legislation that effectively rescinds Dodd-Frank, all of Obama’s work on immigration and carbon ripped to pieces, and on and on and on. And, you know, like, another war.
In the face of all that, I’m supposed to give a shit who the governor of Michigan is? Please.
The Democrats have only one problem in this realm. They have to get their people to vote in midterm elections. Period. That’s it. Now that isn’t easy to do; could take between 10 and 20 years. And it will cost a lot of money to do it right. But if it gets done and done right, then the red tide can be arrested, at least to the extent that Sabato’s numbers suggest. But anybody who’d rather give up the White House for control of eight more governors’ mansions and 11 more state legislatures needs his coconut examined. If bleeding at the state level is inevitable because of White House control, then let it bleed.