Many Democrats are pretty bullish on Hillary Clinton’s prospects for winning the White House in 2016. They have reason to be enthusiastic. Public opinion polls consistently show Hillary Clinton trouncing her hypothetical Republican opponents nationally and in every swing state polled. In addition, she appears to be competitive in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky, where Democratic presidential candidates typically perform poorly. Should she run in 2016, she would without a doubt, be a formidable candidate and the odds on favorite to win the presidential race. However, she has not yet announced that she is running. More importantly, regardless of whether Hillary Clinton chooses to run or not in 2016, Democrats still need to focus their immediate efforts on the 2014 elections.
Alex Sink’s loss in the special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district should serve as a reminder to Democrats how critical turnout is in this non-presidential year. She lost by just over 3400 votes out of the nearly 185,000 votes cast. The problem for her is that turnout was well below the 340,000 votes cast in the same district in 2012 when Barack Obama was atop the ticket. Turnout drop off in non-presidential years happens for both parties, but Democratic turnout typically drops off more sharply than Republican turnout. In special elections the drop off is magnified even further.
Political pundits tend to exaggerate the significance of this one single special election, suggesting it is a national referendum on Obamacare and a harbinger of doom for Democrats. While such statements are grossly oversimplified, Democrats also should shy away from making excuses and instead work to make adjustments to their political calculus to avoid disaster in November. Excuses like blaming the loss on gerrymandering or voter suppression, do not answer why turnout dropped in half from 2012. Nor do they explain how a district that Barack Obama carried narrowly in both 2008 and 2012 should be considered a favorably gerrymandered seat for the GOP. The bottom line is Democratic turnout could have brought the victory home, but not enough Democrats turned out to make that happen.
In 2013, Democratic candidates in state and federal legislative districts, on average, performed well below Barack Obama’s 2012 numbers, underscoring the Democrats problem in off year elections. Although Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections, midterms were disastrous for Democrats in 1994, 2002, and 2010. If Democrats seek to avoid another disastrous year in 2014 they need to mobilize Democratic constituencies to vote in numbers close to the numbers they are able to activate in presidential years.
Take for example young voters. In 2008 and 2012, voters under the age of 45 years old made up around 46 percent of the electorate. In 2010, they were only 36 percent of the electorate. Similarly, minority voter turnout also dips during non-presidential years. Non-white voters were 28 percent of the electorate in 2012 and 26 percent in 2008. In 2010, that percentage dropped to just 23 percent of the electorate. While not all old white people vote Republican, when the electorate skews older and whiter, the GOP has a demographic advantage.
If Democrats wish to neutralize the Tea Party’s ability to harm the country, they cannot afford to wait until 2016 to mobilize. Democrats need to energize young voters, minority voters, and all voters this year. Control of the U.S. Senate is at stake as is the future of the country in critical races up and down the ticket. Hillary Clinton can wait for enthusiastic activists to join her campaign if she runs in 2016. However, America can not afford for left-leaning and centrist voters to wait until 2016 to get involved. 2014 is an election year. If Democratic voters sit on the sidelines again this midterm cycle, it will be a repeat of the 2010 disaster and Democrats will suffer the consequences for their inaction. Educate, mobilize, and when the time comes, get out and vote like your life depends on it. Because in many ways it does.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.