A Changing Electorate: The Democratic Party And Obama's Post-Partisanship

CQ's Jonathan Allen points out that a handful of Democratic lawmakers elected in 2008 will have to defend their seats next time around without the benefit of President Obama's coattails--and possibly without the added African American turnout his candidacy generated. The broad question here is: how will the national electorate change without Obama running, and, in other words, did Obama's candidacy permanently alter the American political landscape?

Obama's broad coalition was comprised, in part, of voters that existed in the political margins: not just African Americans, but disaffected Republicans, civil libertarians angered by the expansion of executive power, young people, first-time voters--people whose votes Democrats don't always count on.

And here is where Democratic voter-retention efforts will be significant. So far, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has sought to bring Obama voters permanently into the Democratic fold by keeping in ouch with them through Organizing for America (OFA)--the Obama supporters list, website, and political operation now being handled by the party. Its first actions have seen moderate success, as supporters have canvassed and delivered signatures to Congressional offices in support of Obama's budget priorities, but it remains to be seen whether Organizing for America can keep its massive list of supporters truly engaged in Democratic politics and/or Obama's legislative agenda.

It's also unclear how forcefully OFA will aid the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the next election. Spokeswoman Natalie Wyeth said in April that campaigning is "not one of [OFA's] primary objectives, but again that could change." In the only special election to be held in 2009, OFA sent e-mails to its supporters encouraging them to support Democrat Scott Murphy in his victory over Jim Tedisco in New York's 20th district.

I suspect many of the marginal voters who supported Obama in 2008 identify themselves more closely with the president (and his historic campaign) than with the Democratic Party. If Obama campaigns heavily for Democratic candidates between now and 2012, that could change things both for turnout and for his image as a post-partisan figure.

One issue for the party will be branding/marketing: will it try to communicate with Obama voters as Obama voters, or as Demcoratic voters? So far, it's doing the former, keeping Obama's political apparatus alive as its own entity, with its own insignia, even if it's being run by the DNC.

All of this walks Obama's public identity down the fine line of partisanship. A lot of voters liked Obama because they saw him as a post-partisan figure; one question for the party, now, is whether it can translate his success into Democratic Party success given that factor. A subsequent question for Obama is whether the party's efforts will co-opt his post-partisan identity as well.