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Why the Democrats lost, according to everyone

Who’s to blame for Democratic losses on Tuesday? Democrats and pundits have plenty of ideas, most of which boil down to “not me." We compiled them for you.
Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (L) of North Carolina is hugged by a supporter after her concession speech acknowledging her defeat by challenger Thom Tillis at her midterm election night rally in Greensboro, North Carolina on Nov. 4, 2014.
Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (L) of North Carolina is hugged by a supporter after her concession speech acknowledging her defeat by challenger Thom Tillis at her midterm election night rally in Greensboro, North Carolina on Nov. 4, 2014.

Who’s to blame for Democratic losses on Tuesday? Democrats and pundits have plenty of ideas, most of which boil down to “not me," while Republicans are rushing to take credit for their own strategies. Are there any pearls of wisdom to be gleaned from these quick and dirty post-mortems, which accuse Democrats of running too far to the left, too far to the right, or even too far to the middle in 2014? We packed them into a list for you to judge. Here are some of the most prominent explanations for why Democrats blew it.   

They didn’t hug the president enough

Individually, Democrats in states where Obama was unpopular had an obvious motive to distance themselves from the president. Collectively, however, they may have dragged themselves and the party down by accepting the premise that their party’s leader was a failure and not claiming credit for recent job growth, low gas prices, expanded insurance coverage, and even improved border security. It also made it harder to fire up base voters still supportive of the president in an election where turnout ended up abysmally low. 

"There is limited ability to run away from the president of your own party."'

“There is limited ability to run away from the president of your own party,” Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic consultant who worked on the party’s recovery from the 1994 GOP wave, told msnbc. “What we learned in 2000 and now in 2014 is that when you do that it’s much more likely you’ll get all of their downside and none of the upside -- and there was a lot of upside to being with Obama.” 

In an impressive bit of trolling, the top Republican officials responsible for tying Democrats to Obama in races around the country agreed with this popular Democratic take.

"They sidelined their best messenger,” Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee told reporters on Thursday. “They sidelined the president."

No, the president hugged them too much!

On the other hand, maybe the Democrats should have distanced themselves from the White House even more. Under this telling, Obama threw the GOP a lifeline after the government shutdown by botching the health care rollout, mishandled a series of crises in the public eye, and then made things worse by announcing that his “policies are on the ballot, every single one of them” a month before the election.

“The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” Harry Reid’s top aide David Krone griped to The Washington Post. “What else more is there to say? ... He wasn’t going to play well in North Carolina or Iowa or New Hampshire. I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.” 

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also approvingly tweeted out an op-ed in Vox noting that losing Senate candidates earned a higher share of the vote than Obama’s approval rating. While approval ratings and vote share aren’t exactly comparable (many candidates outperformed their own low approval ratings this year) it shows where the DSCC’s head is at in the blame game.

No, it was Harry Reid’s fault!

Some red state Democrats argue that Reid handicapped the party by refusing to hold votes on Republican bills, which would have given moderates a chance to demonstrate their independence from the party. 

Photo essay: Voters, young and old, take to polls

"Harry, let us vote, let’s do something. It’s easier for me to go home and explain what I voted for and against than to explain why I don’t vote at all,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told The Washington Post on Wednesday, calling the election “a real ass-whuppin’.” On Friday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus went even further, saying at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that Reid's refusal to let Dems vote on GOP bills “ensured their defeats."

They didn’t fire up Latinos

The booming Latino vote was a critical feature of President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, but in a year where Republicans killed immigration reform, advocacy groups complained the issue didn’t get enough attention.

Nationally, activists have argued that President Obama depressed turnout by punting on a planned decision to revamp deportation procedures. In Colorado, the 2014 Senate state where the Latino vote had the most power, they accused Democratic Senator Mark Udall of letting opponent Cory Gardner cast himself as a moderate by not running ads challenging him on immigration reform.

“Gardner did a much better job confusing the community, but the reality is Udall did not embrace the issue,” Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Famillia Vota, told msnbc. “For what reason, I don’t know.”  

It’s not entirely clear the degree to which Gardner succeeded here: An election eve survey by Latino Decisions gave Udall a wide lead with Latinos, but exit polls showed the two tied, an incredible development in a state where Democrats have dominated the Hispanic vote. Either way, activists on the ground say he showed surprising strength in their door-to-door visits with voters.

They didn’t fire up millennials

In terms of raw numbers, this is the biggest failure. Young voters supported Democrats in 2014 just as they have in the past several elections, but only 12% of voters who showed up at the polls were younger than 30 while a whopping 37% were older than 60. Even last minute viral videos like Lil’ Jon’s “Turn Out For What” didn’t convince millennials to show up. 

Infographic: What changed in the battleground states?

“As a long-term proposition, that’s bad news for Republicans, who now rely heavily on the nation’s oldest generation,” msnbc’s Steve Benen wrote. “But this only matters when voters under 30 are prepared to stand up and be counted.”

Part of the problem, Democrats argue, is new voting restrictions in many GOP-controlled states that make it harder for students to vote by requiring identification at the polls, but not accepting a campus ID card. On the messaging front, though, there wasn’t any obvious national youth-oriented issue that Democrats put much oomph behind, except for the occasional mention of student loan debt.

They didn’t run on middle class issues enough 

Some Democrats felt that the party didn’t offer enough obvious relief to middle class voters worried about their job and stagnant wages, a broad group Obama targeted relentlessly in his 2012 campaign.

"[The minimum wage] in itself was not enough."'

“I’m a strong believer in raising the minimum wage and it needs to happen,” Democratic strategist Greg Greene told msnbc. "That said it’s not something people necessarily identify with when they see themselves as middle class. That in itself was not enough.”

Actually, they didn't focus on the poor enough

In the wake of what they're calling an “election disaster,” progressive members of Congress are joining with more than dozen major left-leaning advocacy organizations to call on Obama to do more to help the economically disadvantaged. They'll hold a press conference on Monday to “demand the President to take more aggressive executive action to help low-wage workers and boost the economy,” implying he didn’t do enough before Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some liberal writers have argued that Democrats needed to do more to excite voters who, for instance, have trouble paying their rent every month. The thinking goes that while these people don't typically vote, if Democrats had given them a better reason to get to the polls, they would have made it.

They didn’t embrace Obamacare

To Greene and a number of other Democrats, one issue that addressed working class and middle class concerns especially directly was the Affordable Care Act. Candidates ran on some of its more popular provisions, like the Medicaid expansion, its ban on rejecting customers with pre-existing conditions, and an end to gender rating, but the law’s general unpopularity made embracing it as a whole difficult. Ironically, the states where it had the most successful rollout – Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas -- are some of the places where Democrats lost by the biggest margins on Tuesday.

Progressive columnist Alec MacGillis wrote on Wednesday that Alison Lundergan Grimes “was notoriously ambivalent about touting [a] policy that has helped hundreds of thousands of low-income Kentuckians” and blamed Democrats for being too timid on the issue generally.

Notably, both Bill and Hillary Clinton argued months ago that the party needed to claim ownership of the law before November.

They didn’t focus enough on turnout

Even though Democrats spent an unprecedented $60 million on the much-heralded Bannock Street turnout program, they still spent far more money on television advertising. Some progressives say that if the party instead had worked on mobilizing voters even more, things would have gone differently. 

CREDO, a liberal super PAC that ran voter organizing efforts this year, credits this resource allocation with the blowout Tuesday. "Democratic party committees and candidate campaigns instead wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on negative television advertising which has not been proven to mobilize Democratic base voting.  If this money had been invested in voter mobilization on the ground instead, Democrats would not have lost the Senate,” the group said in a memo.

They didn’t focus enough on message

Democrats ran against Republicans, but didn’t articulate a clear positive vision of their own, politicos in both parties say. “What is the Democratic economic platform for guaranteeing a chance at prosperity for everyone? Voters can’t articulate it. In the absence of that, you vote for change,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the The Washington Post.

“You can't make up on turnout what you've lost on message. Applies to both parties. This year it’s about the Dems,” Republican strategist Glen Bolger tweeted.  

While individual policies were aimed at courting interest groups, such as single women or Latino voters, some observers complained there was nothing to offer Americans anxious about the economy in a more general sense.

"We suffered across the board, and that suggests a larger problem about the party's story,” said Will Marshall, a former advisor to Bill Clinton and the president of the moderate Democratic think tank Progressive Policy Institute. “It underscores the importance of having a compelling vision for governing the county, not just a laundry list of promises for various slices of the electorate … When there's general dissatisfaction about the way the economy is working, these micro benefits aren't very compelling." 

What about their gaffes? 

You always fight the last war, and for Republicans who were burned by foot-in-mouth disease in 2012, that meant battle-hardening their nominees before Democrats had a chance to get to them. The GOP subjected their candidates to the political equivalent of the military’s SERE training, siccing trackers on them without notice, subjected them to confrontational interviews, and peering into their uncomfortable pasts to make sure their candidates were ready for whatever Democrats threw their way.

This year, it was Democrats who scored own goals with verbal fumbles. The gaffe that even allies say sunk Bruce Braley’s campaign -- a video of him trashing beloved Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school” -- was recorded by a friendly donor and uploaded to YouTube with the permission of a Braley campaign fundraiser, Iowa Democratic sources told msnbc.

In a related problem, Democrats gave up their lead in opposition research as well, which helped rescue the Senate in 2010 and 2012. In the waning days of the campaign, Democrats privately complained that their party hadn’t done more to dig up negative stories on candidates, or push out information that was already known. In Iowa, for instance, internal data told Democrats that Joni Ernst would likely be the most difficult Republican candidate to beat in a general election. But they failed to push out information about her military career that could have damaged her during a GOP primary, or even later during the general. 

They just picked lousy candidates

According to this argument, Republicans recruited top-tier candidates like Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado, while Democrats fumbled. There was the South Dakota debacle, where Tom Daschle and Harry Reid fought a behind-the-scenes war over who should represent the party there, leaving the eventual nominee, Rick Weiland, bitter and underfunded. 

When Sen. Tom Harkin retired unexpectedly – even his former chief of staff didn’t know it was coming – some Iowa Democrats urged him to stay another term or at least help find a different candidate than Braley, who they considered arrogant and uncomfortable in retail political settings. As early as this summer, Democrats in the state were privately complaining to reporters that Braley was a “bad candidate” -- foaming the runway for an expected crash landing moths away.