U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns for U.S. Representative Gary Peters (D-MI), candidate for U.S. Senate, and former U.S. Representative Mark Schauer (D...
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Leaving the Campaigner in Chief on the sidelines

It’s hardly a secret that Democratic candidates were reluctant to campaign with President Obama this year. For that matter, there’s no great mystery as to why: the president’s support has lagged, leaving Dems to see him as a possible drag on their chances.
 
And so, for the most part, Obama stayed off the trail, waiting for invitations that never arrived. In the wake of the results, however, a debate has unfolded as to whether or not Dems made the right choice.
 
Garance Franke-Ruta raised a good point this morning, noting how interesting it is to see Democrats – the ones who avoided campaigning with the president – complain that “Obama voters stayed home” this year. Yesterday, it even became the subject of Republican trolling.
In their victory lap after taking over the Senate on Tuesday, Republicans are poking some fun at Democrats for their candidates’ laborious efforts to distance themselves from President Barack Obama: Thanks a lot, guys!
 
National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Collins needled his opponents on Thursday, saying that Democrats had “sidelined their best messenger” by avoiding Obama.
As a rule, there’s no good reason for Democrats to look to the NRSC for guidance, but maybe Collins’ point shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
 
Indeed, Obama campaigned for Gary Peters’ in Michigan’s U.S. Senate race, and Peters won; Obama campaigned for Dan Malloy in Connecticut’s gubernatorial race, and Malloy won; so it’s not as if the president was necessarily an electoral albatross.
 
Yes, the president’s weak poll numbers didn’t do his party any favors, but a variation on the chicken/egg problem emerges: did Democrats keep the president at arm’s length because he’s unpopular, or is his unpopularity partly to blame on Democrats keeping him at arm’s length?
 
Obama’s coalition of voters was the most impressive accomplishment of any Democratic politician in the last four decades. If Dems wanted more of those voters to participate, maybe the party might have benefited from Obama himself helping make the case?
 
Counterfactuals are obviously speculative and difficult to analyze, but one name keeps coming to mind: Terry McAuliffe.
 
Jamelle Bouie noted yesterday that the only statewide Democratic candidate to “come close to reassembling Obama’s 2012 coalition” is McAuliffe, who won Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year.
 
That’s true. McAuliffe, running in a competitive Southern state, mobilized the base, campaigned with Obama, and even touted the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Then he won, overcoming modest favorability ratings.
 
It didn’t hurt that the governor ran against a right-wing opponent in Ken Cuccinelli, but as we look around the country this week, plenty of equally right-wing candidates won all kinds of races in 2014. The point is, McAuliffe made a conscious decision to reassemble the Obama coalition of voters, up to and including embracing the president on the campaign trail, and it paid off.
 
There are some obvious limits to the thesis here. Given the prevailing winds in 2014, there were more than a handful of Dems who wouldn’t have benefited at all from a presidential visit.
 
But in a more general sense, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what might have happened if Democrats embraced Obama, ran on Obama-era accomplishments, and perhaps even boosted his popularity a bit. The right invested heavily in trying to destroy the president’s political “brand” this year, and those efforts were met with near-total silence.
 

Midterm Elections 2014 and Barack Obama

Leaving the Campaigner in Chief on the sidelines