If you just arrived in the United States with no prior knowledge of our political system, you might think Democrats are pretty well positioned for a good year in the 2014 elections. Polls, for example, show Republicans as woefully unpopular. Their ideas are broadly rejected by the American mainstream. On the issues that enjoy the strongest public support -- minimum wage, immigration reform, etc. -- Republicans are plainly out of step with the electorate.
Making matters worse, GOP lawmakers have no record to run on, having racked up zero legislative accomplishments. They're also responsible for congressional ineptitude on a historic scale, including a government-shutdown fiasco just five months ago.
And yet, despite all of this, Republicans are poised to make significant gains in the fall. It's important for the political world to understand why.
Some of the imbalance is structural. In the Senate, for example, Democrats are defending far more seats than Republicans, including several contests in deep-red states. In the House, as we saw in 2012, gerrymandered district lines make it easy for Republicans to keep control, even when voters themselves vote for Democrats in larger numbers.
Add to the mix a sixth-year president with an underwhelming approval rating and it's easy to understand why Republicans are optimistic.
But this overlooks arguably the biggest piece of the puzzle. Robert Gibbs explained on "Meet the Press" yesterday: "We're looking at a midterm election where the electorate is much less likely to look like a presidential, and much more to look like 2010," which means more an older, less diverse group of voters.
Gibbs isn't the only one who's noticed.
David Plouffe, a onetime White House senior adviser and strategist for both of Obama's presidential campaigns, rejected the idea that the March 11 contest in Florida was a referendum on the president's health-care law, instead arguing that the results expose an enthusiasm deficit among Democrats. "We have a turnout issue," Plouffe said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," airing this weekend. "This is a screaming siren that the same problems that afflicted us" in 2010 when Democrats lost control of the House "could face us again."
For all the Beltway assumptions and Republican rhetoric about 2014 being about the Affordable Care Act, the cycle is really about Democratic turnout more than anything else.
I can appreciate why this might seem like the most painfully obvious comment possible: if one party succeeds in turning out its voters and the other doesn't, there's no great mystery as to who'll win. It practically defines a political no-brainer.
But there's more to this than just the surface-level observation. Ed Kilgore, for example, has remarked many times on what he calls the phenomenon of the "two electorates" -- a larger, diverse electorate that shows up for presidential elections, and a smaller, whiter, and older electorate that gets off the couch during midterms. (Political scientist Tom Schaller has published extensive research on this, too.)
The former turned out in 2008 and 2012. The latter showed up in 2002 a 2010. The parties rose and fell accordingly. (Don't forget all the 2010 polling showing the gap between "all voters" and "likely voters." The nation didn't necessarily want a sharp shift to the right, but the voters who actually cast ballots did.)
There are exceptions, of course. In 2006, for example, Democratic voters actually bothered to participate in a midterm cycle, fueled in large part by opposition to the war in Iraq. The result was a Democratic wave that Karl Rove swore up and down would never materialize and the Speaker's gavel in Nancy Pelosi's hand. But this was more the exception than the rule.
The question for Dems isn't whether "Obamacare" is some kind of albatross; the question is whether the party's voters will spend another midterm cycle sitting on its hands. That was the real significance of the special election last week in Florida -- Republican voters turned out at projected levels; Democrats didn't; so Jolly defeated Sink by 1.8% in a swing district.
Whether or not party leaders appreciate this or not is unclear, but as Plouffe noted, Democrats "have a turnout issue." Effective targeting and competent candidates can help address this, but on a broader level, the smart move for the party is prioritizing Democratic excitement.
Running away from health care reform probably won't help. Neither will cowering in fear of the NRA. In general, party voters -- on both sides -- don't get more engaged when they see party leaders getting into a defensive crouch, hoping not to get beat up too much.
I'm no campaign strategist, but it seems to me Democrats could probably put together some kind of "Four for 2014" platform, telling voters they'll pass four popular bills -- immigration, minimum-wage increase, infrastructure jobs, and veterans benefits, all of which failed due to GOP opposition -- if the electorate takes power away from Republicans.
If the goal is to create an incentive for Dems to show up, maybe the party should give them a reason?