What Happens to the Democratic Party After Obama?

The outgoing president narrowed the party’s appeal in ways that helped the GOP. Democrats may need to widen it again if they hope to recover power.

Nam Y. Huh / AP

In his bittersweet farewell address this week, President Obama made a passionate case for both his policy agenda and his civic vision of a nation strengthened by diversity. But his words won’t settle the Democrats’ difficult debate about his political legacy.

Through two terms, Obama deepened the Democrats’ connection with a constellation of growing groups, namely minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women. That coalition allowed him to join the ranks of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, the only Democrats to win a presidential popular-vote majority at least twice.

But Obama also narrowed the Democrats’ appeal, both demographically and geographically, in ways that helped Republicans seize unified control of the White House and Congress and establish their biggest advantage in state governments since the 1920s.

Both these positive and negative trends for the Democratic Party predate Obama’s first campaign, and the latter trends were accentuated by Hillary Clinton’s unique weaknesses in 2016. But Obama intensified these dynamics with a distinctive strategy that bound Democrats to the political priorities of their heavily urbanized new coalition, especially on cultural issues from gay rights to immigration reform. That came at the price of further alienating the GOP’s competing coalition of older, blue-collar, and religiously devout whites, who live largely outside of urban areas. And it was those voters who mobilized to narrowly elect Trump and preserve Republican control of Congress.

Most analyses overstate the Democrats’ down-ballot losses under Obama because they only start counting after he took office in 2009. That denies him credit for the candidates he helped elect during his resounding first win in 2008. As I’ve written before, the fairest way to measure a president’s impact on his party is to compare its electoral position just before he first appeared on the ballot with its position just after the election to succeed him. That gives the president responsibility for any other officials initially swept in with him, the outcomes during his tenure, and the shadow he casts over the election to replace him.

Under that approach, we would measure Obama by comparing the Democrats’ standing after the 2006 election—just before his first race—with its position after November’s contest. Using that standard, Democrats will end the Obama era with 39 fewer House seats (233 to 194), three fewer Senate seats (51 to 48), and 12 fewer governorships (28 to 16).

Those losses are formidable, but hardly unique. Parties almost always lose ground elsewhere while they hold the White House. In two-term presidencies since World War II, the incumbent president’s party lost more House seats than Democrats did with Obama under Bill Clinton (54), George W. Bush (45), and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (44). The president’s party lost the same number of seats as Obama did under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (39) and fewer seats under Dwight Eisenhower (26). Senate losses exceeded Obama’s under Bush (14), Eisenhower (11), Kennedy and Johnson (8), and Clinton (6), while Republicans gained two senators under the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Obama lost fewer governorships than presidents’ parties surrendered under Kennedy and Johnson (15) and the Nixon and Ford administrations (13)—and lost more than under Eisenhower, Clinton, and Bush (nine each). Only in lost state legislative seats (850) did Obama significantly exceed any of these predecessors, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ronald Reagan was the great exception to all this: During his two terms, Republicans gained 18 House seats, four senators, four governors, and 237 state legislators. Reagan was also the only two-term president since World War II whose party held the White House when he left.

Yet it is understandable why many Democrats join Matt Bennett of the centrist group Third Way in believing “the party is in worse shape” after Obama than it was after Bill Clinton. Though the party’s relative losses were comparable under each president, Democrats now hold a smaller absolute number of House and state legislative seats, as well as Senate seats and governorships, than in 2001. And for Democrats, losing the 2016 race to a candidate as flawed as Trump “is much, much worse than losing a basically tied election to Bush in 2000,” as Bennett told me.

In many ways, Hillary Clinton’s loss raised to the presidential level the same problem that hurt Democrats down the ballot under Obama. Because the Democratic coalition has grown so clustered in urban centers, the party’s capacity to compete for House or state legislative seats beyond those metropolitan areas dramatically eroded during his presidency. Similarly, Democrats have struggled to win Senate and governors’ races beyond culturally cosmopolitan states that are mostly along the coasts.

Obama reached far enough beyond those constraints in heavily blue-collar Rustbelt states to assemble two solid Electoral College majorities. But Hillary Clinton couldn’t match that outreach and fatally retreated even further into the party’s core urban redoubts: Despite comfortably winning the popular vote, she carried less than one-sixth of the nation’s counties. Trump’s path to victory mostly ran through the non-urban areas that had already moved toward the GOP in lower-ballot races under Obama.

As Obama himself has recognized, Democrats cannot cede all that terrain and thrive. “The lesson of this election is … you have to have an overarching message for the country and it has to have a meaningful economic component,” said David Axelrod, formerly Obama’s chief strategist. A candidate more capable than Hillary Clinton of energizing the growing groups most favorable to Democrats could win back the presidency in 2020 without big gains among the culturally conservative white constituencies that powered Trump. But one clear message of the Obama years is that Democrats cannot consistently control Congress or most state governments unless they compete better among white voters, especially those without college degrees. The next generation of Democratic leaders must find ways to better align the voters Obama undeniably added to his party with more of those that he lost.