Are Democrats doomed in 2010, with an energized Republican Party capitalizing on a backlash against a young president’s ambitious agenda to seize control of Congress a la 1994? Not likely — particularly if Democratic candidates learn from the Obama campaign and use the internet to help make sure that their supporters are the ones who show up to vote in November.
First, the background: the party of the president in office essentially always loses seats in the mid-term elections (2002 was a post-9/11 one-off), a tendency likely to be reinforced in 2010 by the fact that so many Democrats rode the Obama wave to win marginal districts in ’08. Plus, this year many progressive activists are turned off by what they perceive to be a failed healthcare reform bill, while others oppose Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan. Add into the mix on the other side a fired-up movement of Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin fans and you have what looks like the recipe for a massive Democratic defeat in eleven months.
But appearances are deceiving, and in 2010 the Democratic base vote is likely to be a candidate’s best friend or worst enemy. First, off-year elections are usually low-turnout elections, giving a huge advantage to the candidate who can motivate his or her supporters to get off their butts and vote. And despite criticism from progressive activists, liberal voters in particular seem to be sticking with Obama, with most of the erosion of the president’s support coming from independents and conservative Democrats. Even better for progressive prospects, relatively few incumbent Democrats will face challengers in the primaries this year, saving money and allowing them to focus on building support for the longer term.
In fact, the party with a divided base in 2010 is the Republicans: the Tea Partiers may have energy, but they primarily seem to employ it against other Republicans, particularly those in the party establishment, even when they’re not squabbling amongst themselves. Many mainstream Republicans will face ideological primary challenges in 2010, forcing them to spend scarce resources early on and to take positions that could box them into a corner in the Fall. And with the RNC short on cash, individual candidates can’t count on the party bailing them out even if they do manage to shrug off the rightwing rabble.
With turnout likely to be low and the Tea Partiers potentially a wash for the Republicans, the onus will be on Democratic campaigns to get their people to the polls. Fortunately, they don’t have to look far to find out how: the Obama campaign provides a perfect example of internet’s ability to help campaigns find supporters, establish connections with them and convert their money and volunteer time into votes. Though individual candidates can’t rely on Obama’s national political machine to mobilize the masses this time around, they CAN use online video, social media and above all email to organize their own turnout operations across the country.
If all politics is ultimately local, the 2010 results will turn on the dynamics of thousands of unique races up and down the scale. But if Democrats want to survive the results of a bad economy and a disillusioned electorate, it’s almost certain that turning out their base will be absolutely critical. And as Obama showed in 2008, online organizing equals real-world results, provided that you focus on what actually works. Let the pundits worry about the mega-trends of 2010 — winning candidates will concentrate on locating and motivating their own voters in their own districts.