The House results on Election Day 2012 were the only bad things that happened in what was otherwise obviously a pretty great day for Democrats and progressives. The biggest question for 2014 is whether we can find a way of turning that result around. Part of the answer, of course, is dependent on how the economy is doing. If the pessimists are right and things are not looking good, we will lose seats not gain them. But even if the economy is okay, do we have a chance at being the House majority after the 2014 elections?
As many Democratic activists have pointed out, we actually won the overall votes in House races by the same 2% plus margin that Obama did, so re-districting dominated by Republican gerrymandering clearly played a big role in them holding on to the House. Democrats, though, are making a big mistake in attributing our failure solely to gerrymandering and essentially giving up on retaking the House the rest of this decade as many pundits are suggesting. I remember the same points being made after the 2002 and 2004 failures to retake the House, and in 2006 and 2008 we not only retook the House but added considerably to the margin in 2008.
The pundits will be predicting doom and gloom for sure. Not only did we fail to win the House back in a good Democratic year, they will remind us, but in the 6th year of a Presidency the president's party almost always loses seats. But historical trends never would have predicted a lot of things we have seen in politics over the last couple of decades (an African immigrant's son with a Muslim name being elected President for one, and then being re-elected in spite of a bad economy for another), and I've been in the middle of a couple big surprises in terms of the House over the years that are worth recalling here because of the lessons they teach.
The first of these was in 1998. It was the 6th year of the Clinton Presidency, and as every pundit under the sun kept reminding us, no President's party in its 6th year had picked up seats since 1822 (when there was no opposition party). Added to that little historical trend was this wee little thing known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Virtually all of the pundits, all the Republicans, and most Democrats were predicting a shellacking for the Democrats- a loss of 30 seats in the House was the average prediction. The DCCC was advising candidates to do anything in their power to change the subject from Lewinsky but an obsessive media and weekly revelations about things like semen-stained dresses made that impossible. But there was a group of us who had a different idea about how to reframe the election: rather than trying to change the subject, lean into the problem and reframe it. I was working at People For the American Way at the time, a group devoted to, as Norman Lear has always put it, being a PR firm for the constitution. We were disgusted with the idea of impeaching a President over having and trying to cover up an affair, and couldn't believe this was all the Republicans and the media wanted to talk about. In talking to my old colleagues from the '92 Clinton campaign Stan Greenberg and James Carville, they confirmed that their poling showed the same thing we were feeling: voters were tired of all this obsession with a sex scandal, and didn't get why you would impeach the President over such a thing. We came up with an ad campaign based on the theme that "it was time to move on". Meanwhile, literally the same week as we launched our ad campaign, out on the West coast, Wes Boyd and his wife Joan Blades, a couple who had never been involved in politics before, had the same idea, and started an internet petition about it being time to "move on" that caught on like wildfire, picking up 500,000 signatures in a matter of a few days by being spread from person to person. Nothing like that had ever happened before in politics and it was a big deal. Wes and Joan's petition and our ad campaign fed off each other, causing a huge stir in the media, and soon we had joined forces and were organizing hundreds of meetings with members of Congress, and were putting ads up in 9 of the most critical media markets in the country.
On election day, we shocked the pants off the punditry and the conventional wisdom DC establishment. Instead of losing 30 or more seats, Democrats picked up 5. We won the big targeted races in 8 of the 9 media markets PFAW and MoveOn targeted.
In 2006, it was another year where initially the pundits and DC establishment were very pessimistic about Democratic chances, saying Democrats had no chances of taking the House back. Redistricting had made it just too tough, they said, and we would be way outspent. A top operative at the DCCC called me very upset early in the cycle because I had written a memo to donors and allied groups saying that I thought we had a decent chance at winning the House, telling me not to get people's hopes up, that there was almost no chance of victory. But again, the pundits and our own party establishment got surprised.
Rahm Emanuel’s DCCC did some great work, raising an impressive amount of money, pounding away at Bush and the Republicans every day in the message wars, and deploying a great team of operatives who helped targeted campaigns in all kinds of ways. Rahm and his team deserve a lot of credit for the Democratic victory in taking back the House that year. But the broader progressive community charted their own course on strategy in House races in a couple of key ways, and without them doing that there would have been no Democratic takeover that year.
The first was on the issues. Having had tough years the past couple of cycles, Democrats started out the 2006 election cycle being very cautious on the issues. Bush’s first priority was Social Security privatization, and there was a lot of talk initially among Blue Dog Democrats about working with Bush on some kind of compromise bill. When the Terri Schiavo issue popped up, many Democrats initially were going along with the Republican demands to keep her on life support against her husband’s wishes. And on the Iraq war, Rahm was recruiting trying to recruit pro-war candidates thinking that was going to be the better politics in the 2006 elections. In every one of these cases, the progressive community pushed back and demanded strong stands for progressive policies, and in each case, it turned out that the politics ended up showing the progressive community was 100% right, as taking a strong stand against Social Security privatization, against keeping Schiavo on life support against her husband’s wishes, and against the Iraq war all turned out to be great for the Democratic. These 3 issues, combined with a slowing economy and Hurricane Katrina, combined to create a wave election that swept Democrats in the House, Senate, and Governor’s seats into power.
The other key thing that progressives did was help expand the map. There are two philosophies re how to engage in a venture as big as trying to win back control of the House. The first is the traditional philosophy of the DCCC, one that had been their way of operating for the previous 4 cycles: target the districts which had been the closest in the previous cycle, but keep the targeting pretty narrow and engage in hand-to-hand combat in the districts where everything seems to be coming together in terms of a good candidate, a good campaign manager, and strong fundraising. Any race that doesn’t fit the formula in the DCCC’s eyes tended to get left by the side of the road to fend for sink or swim, with the vast majority of them sinking. You can see it in the numbers where this strategy had reached its peak, in the years between 1998 and 2004: the number of competitive races (defined as races where the winner got less than 55% of the vote) was 50 in 1998, 58 in 2000, 46 in 2002, and only 34 in 2004. When there are only 40 competitive seats, even if you win 60% of them you’re only winning 8 more of them than the Republicans, and through those heavy trench warfare years, we generally weren’t winning 60% of the close ones.
Early in the 2006 cycle, a group of progressive donors, groups, bloggers, and strategists was looking at these kinds of trends from the previous several cycles, and the lack of success at taking back the House with that kind of strategy, and we felt like we needed to inject something new into the mix. To give ourselves a better shot at winning the House, we decided we needed to expand the list of competitive races. The goal was to double it, from 34 in 2004 to 70 in 2006. A wave of new candidates got recruited to run; bloggers and MoveOn did early fundraising for House candidates at record levels; progressive donors funded special projects to do different kinds of messaging projects in a wider range of districts around the country. And all the while, we all kept pounding away at the big issues- the Iraq war, Social Security, the Terri Schiavo incident, Katrina, the economy running out of gas, a Republican congress rank with corruption- with the goal of turning the election into a wave election against the Republicans. In the end, there were exactly 70 House races where the winner had less than 55%, with the Republicans forced to play defense, spending time and money in places like Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas while we won the key races in the purple districts we needed to win. The wave had built so much that we picked up 31 seats, more than double what we need to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker.
So why did we lose the House in 2012 given all the success Democrats had this year, and what are the lessons we can learn from these past elections where innovative Democrats and progressives came together to craft a winning strategy? I looked at the numbers, and was pleasantly surprised to see the competitive race number was 66, in the same range as those bigger target years of 2006 (70) and 2008 (64), because I had guessed that the DCCC had gone back to a grind it out, narrow targeting strategy, and based on that number it doesn’t look like they did. One caveat, though: after the last big Republican wave election, there were 90 races that were competitive, meaning Democrats made a serious run in that Clinton re-election year at trying to win a lot of those seats back. The smaller number this time probably has more to do with re-districting than with anything else, but I’m guessing that with limited resources, the DCCC did make a strategic decision to narrow their targeting somewhat.
I was also glad to see the win percentage in the closest races was on the positive side, especially given the huge money edge the Republicans had in House races. Of those 66 most competitive races, Democrats won 35- and of the 20 closest races, the Dems won a very impressive 70%. Kudos to the DCCC and the House Majority PAC for those numbers, it is impressive.
In some ways, though, these numbers are less than comforting: if we had lost most of the close races, or made the mistake of targeting too narrowly, the strategic path to winning a House majority back would be easier to create. To pick up 17 seats given what we have to work with is going to need big thinking, a big strategy. And it will take real resources. Let’s face it: one of the biggest reasons we lost the House is that most of the groups, bloggers, money, and talent in the Democratic party and progressive movement was focused elsewhere, on keeping Romney and Republicans in the Senate from running the table and taking over every branch of government. Most people and groups had given up on winning the House months ago and were spending their time, money, and brainpower on the Presidential race and those marquee Senate races like Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Sherrod Brown. We need to create a Manhattan project for retaking the House with the best thinkers, biggest groups, and most influential donors in the party involved.
We also need to stay focused on winning the big picture values debate the way we won it in this election. This election needs to be focused on building a drumbeat as to why House Republicans are so out of touch with basic American values, with everyone on the progressive and Democratic side carrying that message. We need to elevate the battle over the House, make it a case study of the values debate the entire country is having. And by the way, that will help us in Senate and Governor races, too: the most potent weapon Democrats had in the 1990s at all levels of elections was running against Newt Gingrich and the Republican House of that era. In 1996, we won the re-election campaign far more by running against Gingrich than by running against Dole, who was a nice fellow that most people liked. We tied Dole to Gingrich, and made our campaign about opposing the GINGRICH-dole agenda. (The only reason we didn’t get the House back that year was the last minute campaign finance scandal- before that broke we were clearly on a trajectory to retake the House.)
Finally, we are going to need Team Obama to get involved in a major way. One of the few things I am critical about with the Obama campaign this time around was that they utterly ignored the House. Especially with Ryan on the ticket, they had a chance to run against not only Romney but against the tea party crazies controlling the House, which is the most unpopular brand in American politics. Had they done that, we might have been able to pick up a bunch more House seats. Obama needs to suit up and get into the game in House races this time around, raising money, using his vaunted field operation. I would think that after 4 years of dealing with this group of dangerous extremists, Obama would be, as he likes to say, fired up and ready to go. If Team Obama is involved from start to finish, the potential for turning out more Obama voters goes way up as well, and we all know how important the demographics of the electorate is to elections.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, gerrymandering did not end Democratic chances to take back the House. It will not be easy in any way; it will take a huge effort and a big strategic vision for how to pull it off; Obama will have to commit fully to the battle. But absent a bad economy (a variable we just can’t know for a while), we can do this if we as a party and progressive movement commit to it.