As I've written elsewhere, the best definition of a wave election may be that whatever happened in each individual campaign no longer matters all that much, and the results are all pushed strongly in one direction by the national trend. That's never 100 percent true for any race, because there's still variation among both winners and losers, but it becomes awfully hard after an election like this to say about any one candidate, "He would have won if only he had done this."
Nevertheless, it's still worth asking whether the strategy adopted by so many Democrats this year of distancing themselves from President Obama was really a good idea.
That impulse was particularly strong this year because so many of the races were in the South, where Barack Obama and the Democratic party are both unpopular. Even in other places, however, candidates didn't want to have anything to do with the President. For instance, there's an article in Politico today detailing how mediocre candidates (particularly Bruce Braley) rebuffed Obama's offers of help. Yes, it reads a lot like the product of anonymous White House aides trying to strike back at Democrats blaming Obama for their own losses, but that doesn't necessarily means it contains no truth.
So what can we learn from this year? Obviously, if you're a candidate running in a state dominated by the other party, you start off at a disadvantage. The most common way to deal with that disadvantage is to tell voters you'll be an independent voice, with the interests of the good people of your state as your only guiding light. But it's a good rule of thumb that the more defensive you appear about your party, the more skeptical voters will be. Like, for instance, this:
Cultural affinity is always important in the South (the McConnell campaign distributed bumper stickers with the catchy slogan, "Coal. Guns. Freedom. Team Mitch"). But the bigger question is, when you are explicitly hostile to your party's leader, even if he's unpopular in your state, does it lose you more than it gets you?
Of course we can't rerun the election and have everyone change their message to find out. Perhaps they would have lost even worse if they had avoided stuff like that. But the answer to whether all that "distancing" hurts more than it helps lies in whether the election is primarily about persuasion or mobilization. That depends in part on the electorate in that particular state, but as a general matter, midterm elections are much, much more about mobilization than persuasion. The biggest reason Republicans won so dramatically Tuesday is that their voters came to the polls, and Democrats' voters didn't.
That is true to some extent in every midterm, just because of the different demographics of the two parties' coalitions. But if varies from election to election. So if you were a Democrat running this year, one of the key questions your campaign had to answer was how to keep your own voters as excited as possible. And spending time talking about how much you dislike Obama probably wasn't going to help, particularly among those most loyal to him.
Now, there may have been almost nothing someone like Grimes could have done to win. But that's less true in places that are more closely divided between Republicans and Democrats
In Grimes' case, just to keep using her as an example (though this applies elsewhere), if she was worried about not pissing off some 55-year-old white guy who hates Barack Obama, well guess what: not only wasn't she going to win him over, but he was absolutely going to vote. And the best way to deal with that reality was to energize her own base, or at the very least not give them a reason to stay home.
And Democratic candidates gave Democrats lots of reasons to stay home, particularly those most loyal to Obama. Now let me take a counter-example. The one Democratic Senate candidate in a close race who won on Tuesday was New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen. How did she avoid the fate that befell so many others?
While Shaheen wasn't exactly begging for Obama to come campaign for her, she didn't try to "distance" herself from him either. She also didn't try to execute some double-twisting salchow when it came to the Affordable Care Act, channelling voter displeasure and pretending she shared whatever ill-informed opinion whoever she was talking to happened to have. When she got asked whether she was still proud of it, she said, "Absolutely." To be sure, she was critical of things that didn't go well (like the web site roll-out), but no Democratic voter would think she was turning her back on the most important Democratic domestic policy achievement in decades, or dissing their party's leader.
And for whatever combination of reasons, while turnout was down from 2010 in most places in the country, New Hampshire was one of the few places where it actually increased this year.
Again, this isn't to say that candidates in the most conservative states could have changed the eventual outcome with some more creative strategizing, because they probably couldn't have. But it does suggest that in a midterm, the voter you should be most worried about offending isn't the one who hates your party and will never vote for you anyway, it's the one who will vote for you if they make it to the polls, but who might not vote in the end. That's the voter you should really be thinking about.