Are Democrats Complacent Going Into 2016?

After reading Matt Yglesias’ cri de coeur against “complacent” Democrats who don’t seem to be aware the Donkey Party is a presidential loss away from a total conservative makeover of the country, my basic reaction is that Matt needs to get out more. The whole premise of his Vox piece is that Democrats either don’t know or don’t care that they are at a historic disadvantage at the state government level and have little chance of–or a “plan” for–regaining control of the U.S. House, either. The Democrats I talk to seem pretty aware of the situation, if perhaps too sanguine about their long-term prospects (thanks to faith in demographics or doubt that the craziness rampant in the GOP will enable that party to pull of a trifecta).

But aside from Matt’s questionable assessment of Democratic self-knowledge, his hypothesis also suffers a bit from the assumption that the party’s downballot problems can be dispelled by more effort or some undefined “plan.” He does note one built-in dilemma: midterms tend to be characterized by reaction against the party controlling the White House, so unless you lose the White House it’s hard to win midterms. But he doesn’t mention the midterm turnout patterns that have suddenly turned against the Democratic Party since 2008, and that contributed significantly to GOP gains in 2010 and 2014. Nor does he mention another structural factor: controlling a majority of the states can be accomplished with far less than a national majority thanks to the number of small (and often conservative) states.

As for the advantage Republicans have over redistricting, which Matt does emphasize, it’s worth remembering that the election just prior to the next decennial round will be in 2020, a presidential year. That’s not a guarantee of Democratic gains, but it should facilitate a much better showing than in 2010.

More generally, Matt’s idea that Democrats should stop obsessing over the presidential race and focus on state elections right now is questionable. For one thing, even if you regard the presidency as a thin, fragile thread by which the Democratic Party holds onto a share of power, it’s a pretty damn important thread. And for another, a focused GOTV effort in a presidential year is going to produce Democratic downballot gains next year, almost infallibly, especially but not exclusively in battleground states. Yes, it is unfortunate for Democrats (but absolutely beyond anyone’s control) that relatively few governorships are up for grab in 2016. But if Matt really is interested in a “plan” for recovery instead of just a healthy sense of panic, then the actual 2016 battlegrounds are a good place to start.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.