No, more Obama campaign appearances would not have saved the Democrats

The White House's post-defeat finger-pointing has already begun. Here's what they miss

Published November 6, 2014 3:49PM (EST)

Barack Obama                        (AP/Susan Walsh)
Barack Obama (AP/Susan Walsh)

Though President Obama sounded an upbeat note in his post-election press conference Wednesday, the Democrats’ drubbing has inevitably sparked intraparty recriminations. Senate Democrats blame the president’s unpopularity for dragging down the party’s candidates, while the White House retorts that Democratic candidates made major flubs by running away from Obama. Some Obama aides are even suggesting that Tuesday’s results wouldn’t have been quite as dire had candidates like Iowa’s Bruce Braley deployed the president on the campaign trail. This line of thinking, however, misses the mark.

To be sure, frantically fleeing Obama or even lambasting the president proved no help. Despite calling herself a “Clinton Democrat” and repeatedly refusing to admit that she voted for the president, Alison Lundergan Grimes lost to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky by nearly 16 percentage points, a much larger margin than pre-election polls had forecast. West Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant, who ran an ad depicting herself shutting off the lights at the White House as she denounced the administration’s energy policies, lost to Republican Shelley Moore Capito by 27 percentage points. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who vowed to be a “total thorn” in Obama’s backside, also appears to be headed for defeat, though several thousand absentee and early ballots remain to be counted before officials make a final call in his race against Republican Dan Sullivan.

Nine times out of 10, if a Democrat runs a race in which she or he is constantly apologizing for being a Democrat, voters will simply opt to elect a Republican. Obama may be deeply unpopular in Kentucky, West Virginia and Alaska, but in a competition over who’ll stick it to the president more, guess which party will always come out on top. Of course, while the president’s numbers are nothing to write home about anywhere, not all of Tuesday’s elections took place in states where his standing is as poor as it was in those three states. So shouldn’t Democrats in purple states like Iowa and Colorado have been much more receptive to the president?

That’s certainly the White House’s take. Speaking with Politico just before voters headed to the polls, one aide said, “These candidates tried to walk a tightrope between getting some distance from the president and trying to turn out his base.”

The president’s “general view is: We as a party are better when we’re making an argument,” the aide added. “For an array of reasons — some of which he’d agree with, some of which he wouldn’t — he was prevented from making that argument.”

Aides cited a late-stage snub of the president by Bruce Braley, the Democratic Senate nominee against Republican Joni Ernst in Iowa. While first lady Michelle Obama campaigned for Braley – infamously referring to him multiple times as “Bruce Bailey” in her first event for the candidate – Obama also offered help in the race’s final weeks, but Braley “didn’t take Obama up on the offer,” Politico reports. Braley lost to Ernst on Tuesday. White House aides also voiced the view that Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who lost to Republican Cory Gardner, needlessly spurned the president.

But there’s not a shred of evidence that a single race would have turned out differently had candidates like Braley and Udall allowed the president to make the argument White House aides wanted him to. First, there were national Democrats who took the party’s case to voters in battleground states. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, rallied supporters for both Braley and Udall, to no avail. Warren and Clinton boast  much better popularity numbers than the president’s; that Braley and Udall lost despite their support underscores the very real limits of even the most popular and effective national surrogates, particularly in a year like this one.

Of course, the few Senate candidates Obama did campaign for – including Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sen.-elect Gary Peters of Michigan – won their races, but those results were long expected.

In Maryland, Obama campaigned for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, also seen as something of a shoo-in. But he lost by a stunning 9 percentage points amid an anti-taxation backlash.

The president also stumped for Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both of whom lost by about 5 percentage points on Tuesday. That Obama couldn’t even rally the troops to save his home state governor speaks volumes; if his support was insufficient there, how could it have really made a difference for Braley, who lost by 8 points, or Udall, who lost by 5 points?

Moreover, the jarring loss of Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina demonstrates that even a remarkably deft handling of the Obama factor wasn’t enough for a candidate to prevail. As my colleague Joan Walsh and the New Republic’s Jason Zengerle point out, Hagan skillfully dealt with such topics as the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, refusing to abandon the president’s signature policy. And it almost worked. Zengerle notes that African-American turnout in North Carolina reached 21 percent, matching its mark in 2008, when the Obama coalition propelled the president to victory in the state and helped Hagan oust Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. But Hagan bled support among white voters, who supported her at even lower rates than they did the president two years ago, when Obama narrowly lost the state to Mitt Romney.

It’s tempting, in the aftermath of a defeat as crushing as Tuesday’s, to ruminate on the would haves, could haves and should haves. There will be no shortage of further analyses and postmortems in the weeks to come, but one thing should be abundantly clear: Obama could not have saved the Democrats from this week’s shellacking.

By Luke Brinker

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