Can Clever Campaigns Save the Democrats in 2014?

The party's only hope to rescue the midterms is a tactical silver bullet—the underlying forces are arrayed against them.
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Recently I attended a briefing at the Democratic National Committee intended to impress reporters with the newfangled technology the party plans to use to change the midterm-election landscape. Staffers pulled up a slide cheekily showing the file the party’s voter database has archived of one Reinhold R. Priebus of Wisconsin—the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Despite the entry listing his “likely party” as Republican, with 100 percent certainty, Priebus had thrice been contacted by Democratic campaigns, it said.

Files like these, and the databases into which they could be compiled, would be Democrats’ edge in upcoming elections, the officials hosting the briefing insisted. Through precision targeting and data, campaigns from the local to the congressional to the state level could figure out which voters to talk to and deploy volunteers and staff to cajole them from their homes to vote. State-of-the-art technology would tap into people’s Facebook networks or point them to the correct polling place. Modeling would predict within a narrow range how the election would turn out and dispatch monitors for a possible recount. The tools all had code names: Explorer, Airwolf, Project Ivy.

The briefing inspired a spate of coverage about all the fancy new ways Democrats hoped to engineer their way to electoral victory. For proof, the party pointed to the narrow victory of Terry McAuliffe, elected governor of Virginia in November 2013. (As for the Democratic candidate who fell to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by a 22-point margin that same day, the DNC said her campaign was not “structured to take advantage of” the tools.) And yet, a few weeks later, the shoe was on the other foot. Last month, it was Republicans who were doing a victory lap after their candidate triumphed in a closely watched Florida special congressional election. The newly minted congressman owed his win, Republicans announced afterward, to a shiny new data-and-voter-file integration system—codename: Honeybadger.

In short, claims that one party or the other has built up a tactical advantage based on the latest in campaign science are always to be taken with a grain of salt. Political scientists have trouble detecting major effects on elections from even the most intensive campaign efforts. Party committees’ boasts about their tactical arsenals are probably largely for the benefit of their donors, who must be reassured their money is going somewhere useful. (Why else would they reveal techniques that surely would be all the more effective if they caught opponents unawares?) As it happens, the DNC is more than $10 million in debt.

But for Democrats, the emphasis on magic tricks is a symptom of something else as well: the difficult landscape the party confronts in 2014. The underlying factors the political scientists look at to make their predictions—a middling economy, an unpopular Democratic president—are stacked against them. Redistricting tilts the House against them, while their Senate incumbents were last elected in 2008, when the heady Obama coattails helped power them to victory in normally red states. The demographic groups from which the party drew its strength in 2012 and 2008—minorities, young people, single women—have been less inclined to vote in non-presidential elections in recent years. And so, to stave off disaster, Democrats need to get more of those people to vote. All the tools in their arsenal—as well as a stable of “election protection” efforts targeting alleged vote suppression—are aimed at finding those latent Democratic voters and shaking them out of their houses.

A good Election Day for Democrats this year, party strategists agree, will be one on which they manage to hang onto the Senate, by whatever margin. The headcount in the House is expected to remain about the same, leaving it in Republican hands. In the Senate, where Democrats now control 55 votes, the statistician Nate Silver has forecast a narrow Republican takeover, while the political scientist John Sides, writing in the Washington Post, says that depending on which candidates emerge from the upcoming primaries (to be held in most states between May and August), Republicans could have as much as an 80 percent chance of controlling the Senate. Then again, Democrats faced difficult terrain in Senate elections in 2010 and 2012 but managed to prevail—despite Silver's predictions to the contrary.

The key question may turn out to be how much 2014 resembles 2010, Republicans’ last big year—the Tea Party-powered wave that swept them into office at all levels nationwide. It’s clear that conditions are somewhat different now. The Tea Party, while still active, seems to have less clout. (Then again, that could be good for Republicans if it leads to fewer internecine battles and fewer unqualified or extreme nominees.) And public sentiment, while negative toward the president, the economy, and healthcare reform, is nowhere near the fever pitch it hit four years ago. “In 2010, people were petrified of what was happening around them,” one prominent Democratic pollster recalled. Retirement funds were being emptied, people’s homes losing their value, things falling apart; Obama and his party, by single-mindedly pursuing the Affordable Care Act, seemed to be fiddling while Rome burned.

Today, on the other hand, “the anger’s not there like it was before,” the pollster said. After a wave of revulsion at the incompetence of the Healthcare.gov launch, people “realize that the world hasn’t ended,” and their worries are shifting to quality-of-life concerns. Still, Democrats haven’t figured out a consistent message—some want the party to forcefully defend Obamacare; others urge running away from Obama and quickly changing the subject; on Capitol Hill, the party is eagerly picking fights on perceived winning issues like unemployment insurance, women’s pay discrimination, and the minimum wage. 

I asked another Democratic consultant how much panic she was detecting among her fellow partisans. “I think Democrats like to panic and to use that energy as fuel to get motivated,” she said. In 2010, Democrats’ biggest problem was the other side’s passion; this time, it may be their own side’s apathy. To combat it, they will need every trick in the book.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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