Party or movement, political seats or policy wins

A sinus infection has slowed me down for the past couple days, so I haven’t been writing as much as I would like on here. Let me jump back into the fray with a look at the bizarrely two-minded Democratic assessment of how well they did in the elections earlier this month. I dove into that discussion earlier myself, noting that while the Democrats lost a number of elections that weren’t unquestionably outside their grasp (the Kentucky governorship namely, but also the Virginia state legislature), the main changes were either in their favor or largely non-partisan. What stuck out to me were the ballot initiatives in Houston and Ohio which passed, as well as the Democratic wins in Pennsylvania which if nothing else tempered their losses elsewhere that night.

The Progressive Turnout Project, however, wanted to focus on what they saw as a recurring pattern in Democratic defeats. They sent out a promotional email after the election describing some key “huge losses”:

2015-11-10_1746Let’s take those one at a time.

In 2011, Kentucky did pick a Democratic gubernatorial candidate over a Republican one, to the tune of 464,245 Democratic votes altogether. That only slid down to 426,944 votes in 2015, however, not really an appreciable shift considering the 2011 Democratic candidate was an incumbent who was able to originally eke his way into office when the sitting Republican governor came under fire for corruption. 2011 may very well have been a high water mark for Democrats in Kentucky, even if it was nationally more of a low point.

It’s additionally worth noting that that Republican vote was probably more hampered than the Democratic one by an independent campaign in 2011 by libertarian Gatewood Galbraith. Although markedly pro-marijuana, he is perhaps most overt in his policy recommendations when it comes to the New Deal and related social programs which he argues dislodged the agrarian nature of the US and imposed an unethical, industrial-minded political order. In an off-year election with over 100,000 fewer votes cast than in the more recent one, he probably siphoned more support from the Republican than the Democrat.

The Virginia General Assembly, meanwhile, is a continuing exercise in gerrymandering. Others have better described the lengthy history of Virginia’s local legislature as a body representing the state internally divided in a radically unrepresentative way. As in, 8:3 ratio of seated state legislators with Democrats in aggregate receiving more votes statewide. Since the redistricting that went into effect in 2011, the Virginia State Senate, previously the only major body or position in the state held (narrowly) by Democrats, has gone ever so slightly to the Republicans. The maintenance of the two-vote majority for Republicans isn’t some sort of baffling and unexpected phenomenon. Regrettable? Sure. Avoidable? Perhaps. Completely within Democrats’ power to chip away at? Not necessarily. Something to expect to work itself out? Not in the slightest.

Lastly, the idea that Mississippi in an off year was going to elect a Democrat, well, stranger things have indeed happened, but that this was an unexpected loss, only possible with low turnout, speaks to a Democrat confidence that maybe is misplaced. Yes, Democratic-leaning voters are less likely to show up at the polls because of structural inequalities – they are less likely to own cars to drive to them, they are less likely to have media alert them about the election, they are even less likely to even have Democratic candidates to vote for. But there’s also the messaging game. Are Democrats making a compelling case to voters who might be persuaded in either direction? While many national elections indicate that that’s the case, they don’t speak to the increasing presence of candidates like Gatewood Galbraith (or other independent or third party candidates, or even Blue Dogs) as the alternative to Republicans in many corners of the United States. Democrats may very well have simply lost Mississippi.

Former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean struck a more nuanced version of the same chord as the Progressive Turnout Project. He admitted that “You have to have resources in the state parties, you have to have organizations in the state parties. Even places you don’t think we can win, because if you don’t do that we’re never going to win those states.” Implicit within that statement is that spreading resources and candidates out into less certain districts will indeed lead to losses, but even also a certain number of wins. That resignation to some inevitable losses didn’t stop Dean from bemoaning that “the thing that kills me about Kentucky is 460,000 people will lose insurance because they didn’t go out and vote”. The core of his argument is the same as the Progressive Turnout Project’s – that this is about either Republican structural advantages and either apathetic or misguided voters, rather than Democratic failures (inevitable or not).

Working Families, a pseudo-third party organized mainly in the broader New York City area, vocally disagreed in their post-election analysis-meets-donation-drive:

2015-11-10_1849A polarizing situation seems to have emerged here, where particularly non-partisan elections (mostly on ballot initiatives) have galvanized Democratic-leaning voters, even as the Party’s political fortunes have declined. Enmeshed in a political system that, as some Democrats have pointed out, is largely opposed to them and their policy goals, this makes apparent the status of the Democratic Party as political party hanging in air. What’s more important to it – partisan victories or policy victories? Most of the time the two go hand-in-hand, but in this past election, they each took a step sideways and showed they can diverge paths.

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