Why Divided Government Is Here to Stay

Democrats have assembled a coalition that could help them keep the White House. But those same voters are AWOL in midterm elections.

National Journal

Imagine a breathtaking penthouse suite atop a building whose timbers are rotting.

That essentially summarizes the Democratic position in the 11 swing states that both sides consider the most likely tipping points in the 2016 presidential election. While Democrats have opened a clear presidential advantage in these states over the past two decades, they approach 2016 decimated in almost every relevant down-ballot office, from the U.S. House to the state legislatures and governorships. In these other contests, "there are real structural issues that we have got to come to terms with," says Steve Schale, the top Florida strategist for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

The list of key swing states that both sides have targeted in recent presidential elections includes Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the Southeast; Colorado and Nevada in the Southwest; and across the Rust Belt, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Next America has analyzed the changing demographic profile of these states in a series of stories over the past three weeks.

Recent Democratic presidential nominees have run strongly across these critical battlefields. President Obama won all 11 of these states in 2008 and each of them except North Carolina in 2012. Looking back over the past six presidential elections since 1992, Democratic presidential candidates have carried these states 45 times out of a possible 66 chances. Democrats have carried three of these swing states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) in all of the past six elections; New Hampshire and Iowa five times; Ohio and Nevada four times; and Colorado and Florida three times. Across this terrain, Republicans have won a majority of the past six elections only in North Carolina (five GOP victories) and Virginia (four, though Obama won the last two.)

But below the marquee presidential contests, the picture is very different. Republicans now hold the governorship in seven of these 11 states (all except Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire). Republicans control the state House in 10 of the 11 states (with Colorado as the only exception). Republicans also control the state Senate in 10 of the 11 states (with Iowa as the only exception). Combined, Republicans hold unified control of the governorship and state legislature in six of the 11 swing states, Democrats in none.

Republicans are equally dominant in the U.S. House. Republicans hold the majority of House seats in all 11 states except New Hampshire, where the two parties split the state's two seats. The GOP holds at least twice as many U.S. House seats as Democrats do in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, and Republicans approach that lopsided advantage in Michigan and Florida. Overall, the GOP controls 85 of the House seats from these states and Democrats just 39.

Below the presidential level, Democrats are competitive in these states only in contests for the U.S. Senate: each side holds 11 of the states' 22 Senate seats. Democrats hold both seats in Virginia and Michigan, Republicans both in Iowa and North Carolina, and the other seven split their two seats between the parties.

What explains the gaping disparity between the results in presidential elections and almost everything else in these states? Analysts in both parties point to the same principal cause: the Democrats' struggle to turn out their modern coalition—centered on minorities and young people—for midterm elections. Almost invariably, the electorate across these states is older and whiter in midterms than in presidential elections. And that shift can tip states that are closely balanced in presidential years decisively toward the GOP in the off-years.

In Ohio, for instance, Mike Dawson, a Columbus-based public policy consultant and former GOP aide, notes that the state has split 5-5 between the parties over the past 10 presidential races. But Republicans have won nine of the past 10 governor's elections, which are held during the midterm. The key difference, he says, is a voting fall-off that reaches towering proportions. The number of voters in the state dropped by 2.4 million from 2012 to 2014, and 1.8 million from 2008 to 2010, notes Dawson, who also runs a website called ohioelectionresults.com. "We are not that far apart in the presidential years, but when those Democrats drop off in the nonpresidential years, it just turns into routs," he says.

In Florida, exit polls showed the share of white voters ticked back up from 67 percent in 2012 to 69 percent in 2014, and Schale believes it might have been slightly higher than that. Such seemingly small changes totally rework the formula for victory, he notes. "With those [levels] you've got to get 41 to 43 percent of the white vote to win, and since 2008 we haven't gotten anywhere near that," he says. To underscore Schale's point, Charlie Crist won exactly the same share of the white vote (37 percent) as the losing Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2014 as Obama did when he carried Florida in 2012 by nearly 75,000 votes.

Of the 11 swing states, North Carolina and New Hampshire (the latter of which provides governors only two-year terms) are the only ones that elect their governors in presidential election years. That timing allows Republicans everywhere else to benefit from their structural turnout advantage in midterm elections. U.S. Senate races are also powerfully affected by this dynamic, notes longtime Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. Democrats Mark Udall and Kay Hagan, he notes, won Senate seats in Colorado and North Carolina during the 2008 presidential year and lost them in last year's midterm. Though New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen and Virginia's Mark Warner narrowly survived the same challenge last year, Democrats also lost an open-seat 2014 Senate race in Iowa. And in the 2010 off-year elections, Republicans won Senate races in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Hampshire—while in the swing states, Democrats prevailed that year only in Colorado and Nevada.

"It's a little bit more than coincidence that nonpresidential-year turnouts have produced pretty different results than presidential turnout [years], especially in the Obama era," Garin says. In 2016, a higher turnout presidential year, that wheel could turn again in the Democrats' favor when Republicans will need to defend the six swing-state Senate seats they won in 2010.

But the Democrats' midterm turnout woes can't entirely explain their down-ballot struggles in these states, because the party has also faltered in U.S. House and state legislative races held during presidential years. A major part of the problem there, experts note, is redistricting: By seizing control of so many governorships and state legislatures in 2010, Republicans won control of the redistricting process in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. That allowed them to draw state and U.S. House district lines that have advantaged them through the decade.

But experts agree that Democrats have also been hurt by the narrowing of their appeal, in two distinct respects. Geographically, Democrats have grown increasingly reliant on dense urban areas for their vote. Almost without exception across these states, Democratic support has cratered in more-rural areas, leaving the party unable to seriously compete for state or U.S. House seats from those regions.

In Wisconsin, for instance, Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, says that "with population distribution and concentration, many of our 99 [state] Assembly seats are outside of urban areas, and those are areas that have moved in a Republican direction over time."

In large parts of Florida, Schale notes, Democrats have grown so weak at recruiting and electing candidates for entry-level positions like school board or county commissioner that they could have too few credible nominees even if changing demography brings more state or U.S. House seats within their reach. "If you map out a lot of the places that will be competitive over the next four to six years at the congressional level, there are not any Democrats elected at the local level, or just one or two. You are starting from scratch," he says.

Ideologically, the Democrats' difficulty in competing for these offices below the White House could also reflect the limits of their agenda and message. Reversing a Republican advantage from the 1970s and 1980s, most voters now side with Democrats on the key cultural issues such as gay marriage, abortion, access to contraception, and immigration reform. But under Obama, the party has struggled to convince most Americans, particularly in the white middle class, that they will economically benefit from activist government.

While cultural issues usually loom large in the presidential race, in the down-ballot contests voters typically focus more on bread-and-butter economic concerns. The Democratic difficulty in these other races may reflect a party that relies too much on cultural affinity to win support—and has not found sufficiently effective answers to the Republican critique of "excessive government." "I don't see Democratic candidates here in Wisconsin laying out new counterarguments on those issues," says Franklin. The fact that the two parties are most competitive in the U.S. Senate races, where values issues are relatively more pertinent than in state or even House contests, underscores the point.

History suggests that losing the White House in 2016 might actually help Democrats rebuild in some of these states, since their voters sometimes bend toward the party that loses the presidency. (The party that lost the White House, for instance, had won the next year's Virginia governor's race nine consecutive times until Democrat Terry McAuliffe broke the streak in 2013.) But that is probably a higher price than most Democrats are willing to pay to get off the mat in the states at the tipping point of American politics.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article