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April 21, 2014 9:34 AM Democrats’ Midterm Challenge

By Ed Kilgore

People who regularly read this blog may not learn much new from Dan Balz’ big preview on the Democrats’ 2014 strategy at WaPo yesterday, but it is a good summary of the fundamental issues: (1) Democrats need to change midterm turnout patterns to resemble more closely those of a presidential year; (2) they’re spending unprecedented money using the tools that worked so well in 2012 to do that; and (3) the focus on turnout could be coming at the expense of both the resources and the messaging normally devoted to swing voter persuasion.

Throughout Balz’ piece you can faintly discern a sort of “minority report” of Democratic operatives who don’t really think “midterm falloff” (especially among inherently down-ballot- resistant young voters) can be changed and who fret that Democrats are getting killed in the early “swing voter persuasion” television wars and are sacrificing swing-voter-friendly messages to the task of energizing “the base.”

It’s the very latest version of a very old debate in Democratic (and for that matter, Republican) circles about “base versus swing” strategies. What’s changed in this debate are two realities and one hypothesis.

The first reality is that Democrats are significantly more dependent on demographic categories vulnerable to midterm falloff than they used to be. So even if every other variable was held steady from, say, the 1990s, a greater emphasis on turnout would be appropriate. The second reality is that thanks to partisan polarization there’s not much in the way of a “move to the center” available in messaging, and Democratic “triangulation” against the Obama administration won’t work, in part because the size of the “swing vote” has declined.

The big hypothesis is that thanks to an abiding Democratic advantage in technology, along with Republican extremism and overreach, Democrats can strike the right balance in GOTV and television and offer a message that both “energizes the base” and maximizes swing-voter persuasion, for whatever it’s worth.

Complicating the picture, of course, is that so much of the crucial 2014 turf—particularly in terms of Senate races—is in such hostile territory. It’s entirely possible that Democrats could put together a midterm election strategy of epic proportions and hit all of their national markers—and still fall short in states like Arkansas and Alaska. That would, however, bode well for 2016, when the winds shift dramatically on turnout—particularly if Republicans learn the wrong lessons from easy wins on favorable turf with everything working to their advantage.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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