Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
If you meet three Americans who are of voting age and are eligible under the laws of the state in which they reside to cast ballots, two of them did not do so in the 2014 election.
In most states it is likely that the two nonvoters will be younger and poorer than the one voter—meaning that a small, older and relatively elite minority is defining not just the results of elections but the direction of the United States.
As concerns regarding the state of the nation go, this is a big one. And it ought to inspire not just complaints—as have been aired since the election—but calls to action.
According to United States Elections Project estimates, just 36.3 percent of eligible voters bothered to participate in elections where members of the US House and Senate, most governors and most state legislators and thousands of local officials were chosen. The nation’s most populous states, all of which had full federal and state ballots, saw dismal turnout: 28.5 percent in Texas, 28.8 percent in New York, 31.8 percent in California.
Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa) saw turnout in excess of 50 percent. In contrast, elections in Germany regularly see turnout in excess of 70 percent, in Scandinavia above 80 percent, in Belgium above 90 percent. “The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th in the world for average turnout,” noted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Political systems differ from country to country, and so comparisons are tricky. But some patterns are clear. Unlike countries with high turnout rates, for instance, elections in the United States are more dramatically expensive, just as campaigns in the United States run dramatically longer. Because of the declining circumstance of commercial media (especially newspapers) and the chronic underfunding of public and community broadcasting outlets, US voters have less access to consistent and high-quality coverage of campaigns.
Additionally, many US states have seen the enactment of laws that make it harder to vote, and the Supreme Court only made matters worse with its 2014 decision to undermine the Voting Rights Act. “The reason politicians ignore so many of the working poor is that they don’t vote,” argues The Root’s Danielle C. Belton. “And the reason so many of the working poor don’t vote is that certain politicians have made sure it’s as inconvenient as possible for them.”
It is not particularly difficult to identify factors that depress turnout. Nor is it difficult to recognize that that the crisis is worsening. States and communities across the country reported record low turnout in 2014 primaries and the general election. Overall, US turnout was the worst since 1942, when World War II presented unique challenges.
What is necessary now is a recognition that the crisis will continue to worsen if we do not take appropriate actions to assure that elections are reflective of the will of the whole people.
Some of the reforms that are needed involve significant transformations of our rules and structures for funding campaigns—including a constitutional amendment to restore the authority of citizens and the elected representatives to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars. Changes must be made in order to fill the journalistic void by sustaining and expanding independent media. There are also arguments to be made for major structural shifts. For instance, the group FairVote proposes a number “systemic electoral reforms that reverse the contextual reasons for low turnout. “
*Fair Representation Voting for legislative elections would allow for outcomes that better represent the diverse beliefs of the electorate, and could therefore combat the low voter turnout that we see in many winner-take-all plurality districts, where choices are limited.
*A National Popular Vote (NPV) for president, which would make every vote in every state equally valuable in every election, would expand presidential campaigns from just ten states to all 50. As voter turnout is markedly lower in states that receive no presidential campaign attention, the reallocation of campaign resources to include non-battleground states would likely increase turnout in those states.
*Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for other single seat offices like mayor and governor would better represent the views of third party and independent voters, as more candidates would be inclined to run. Therefore, voters who might not feel that their views are represented in a two-party race would turn out to the polls to support their preferred candidate.
*Universal Voter Registration would modernize voter registration in the United States, making government responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, shifting our system from its current opt-in structure to an opt-out structure.
These are all sound proposals, and some of them have been implemented with considerable success in communities across the country. Taking them national involves organizing and hard work.
But is there something more we can do right now—something that should be easy and without significant controversy?
How about making Election Day a holiday? That’s hardly a radical idea. Countries around the world schedule elections on weekends or recognize weekdays when elections are held as a holiday. Louisiana usually votes on Saturdays. And roughly a dozen states and jurisdictions give some recognition to Election Day as a holiday. So why not take the idea national?
That’s what Senator Sanders is proposing. Even before November 4, the independent from Vermont argued that, as part of a broader effort to generate the largest possible turnout, “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the opportunity to vote.”
After the turnout crisis became evident—even in his own traditionally high-turnout state of Vermont, where voter participation fell to 43.7 percent, the worst rate on record—Sanders acted. He proposed the “Democracy Day Act of 2014”—a simple piece of legislation that would designate each and every federal Election Day as a public holiday.
“We should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60 percent of our people don’t vote and some 80 percent of young people and low-income Americans fail to vote,” says Sanders. “We can and must do better than that. While we must also focus on campaign finance reform and public funding of elections, establishing an Election Day holiday would be an important step forward.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the 2014 mandate to remove big money from politics
We are stuck in the political equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day. In the absence of constitutional reform that renews the authority of citizens and their elected leaders to enact meaningful campaign finance laws, America is destined to repeat from election cycle to election cycle the sordid process by which our politics and our governance are bartered off to the highest bidders in ever-more expensive auctions for the souls of elected leaders and both major parties.
The final spending totals for 2014 will not be known for months, and in this era of increasingly dark, dark-money campaigning, some of the details will never be adequately revealed or understood. But even the bare minimum figure established just prior to the election by the Center for Responsive Politics is acknowledged as a record. “Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the one before it, and predictably the 2014 election will follow that path, CRP has projected—though the total projected cost of $3.67 billion is only a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm,” the center noted. “Counting all forms of spending—by candidates, parties and outside groups—Team Red is projected to have spent $1.75 billion, while Team Blue’s spending is projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.”
The final figures will be much higher for several reasons. First, many types of spending are not revealed until weeks, sometimes months, after elections. Second, formal filings and investigative reports will over time reveal more details of supposedly “independent” and dark-money spending. Finally, and most significantly, details of spending on state and local contests will boost that $3.67 billion figure dramatically. The able researchers at CRP focus on federal races for the US Senate and the US House. Yet, some of the biggest spending of 2014 took place in competitve state races for governor, for attorney general and for control of key legislative chambers. Additionally, spending skyrocketed in state and local judicial races in 2014. And spending on initiatives and referendums was in the hundreds of millions.
Add all this additional largesse in and the 2014 spending figure will be well in excess of $5 billion.
This spending does not buy higher turnouts—2014 saw the lowest level of voter participation since 1942, when World War II created some complications.
The spending does not produce better debates on a wider range of issues—the 2014 campaign was broadly derided as “the election about nothing.”
And it does not result in better or more responsive governance—on the eve of the 2014 election, the approval rate for Congress fell to 8 percent.
That final factor is the most consequential. While much is made of the impact that election spending has on particular contests and on the broader struggle for control of the Congress, there is far too little consideration given to the reality stated by Congressman John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who says, “A lot of the moneyed impact. and in some ways, the most sinister is on the governing that happens after.”
Americans recognize this. An April 2014, national Reason-Rupe poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe all politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. Other surveys, asking the question in other ways, have found even higher levels of cynicism about arrangements between economic and political elites.
The American people also know that without the restoration of basic American ideals and standards with regard to elections—rooted in the premise that corporations are not people, money is not speech and votes must matter more than dollars—each new election cycle will be more expensive and more negative and much less likely to produce high turnouts and results that reflect the will of the great mass of citizens.
There is a sense of urgency, well expressed by US Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, when he said just after the 2014 election: “If we don’t move quickly and forcefully to get big money out of our elections, it will give the wealthy a vice grip on our government. It will drown out the voices of regular folks. And it will embolden those with the deepest pockets to take further action to keep shaping the electorate how they see fit. We need action, and we need it now.”
Most importantly, Americans are acting on that knowledge. The hidden story of the 2014 election cycle was that, amidst all the shameless fundraising and spending, a popular revolt was brewing at the polls.
This was not about Democrats or Republicans.
This was not about liberals or conservatives.
This was about democracy.
In states across the country, voters signaled that they are ready to take the steps that are necessary to constrain the “money power” of billionaire campaign donors and corporate lobbies in order to restore honest debates, honest elections and honest governance.
Counties, cities, villages and towns in Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin took up the question of whether the US Constitution should be amended to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down century-old limits on corporate spending to buy elections.
The demand was clear and unequivocal. While the questions on ballots across the country varied modestly, they all paralleled the message of the ballot question that earned 70 percent support in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: “Shall the United States Constitution be amended to establish the following? 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”
Across Wisconsin, a dozen communities took up the question, and a dozen endorsed it with support running as high as 82 percent. Notably, in a number of communities that voted to elect Republicans (including free-spending Governor Scott Walker), support for an amendment was overwhelming.
The same was true in other states. In red regions, in blue regions, in urban cities and rural towns, Americans backed the calls for an amendment. There were almost three dozen votes November 4, in jurisdictions that are home to the better part of 2 million Americans, and the message was overwhelming. “Nearly all Americans share the sentiment that corporations should not have the same rights as people, and big money in politics should be removed,” declared Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, the national director of Move to Amend. “It is time for Congress to pass the We the People Amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The leadership of both parties need to realize that their voters are clamoring for this amendment, and we are only going to get louder.”
The number of commuities that have made the call for an amendment now exceeds 600.
The number of states is at sixteen, and it will rise.
The crisis is real, and so is the movement to address it.
Just ask Katie Schierl. She helped organize the petition drives to put the issue in the cities of Neenah and Menasha, Wisconsin. In a region where Republicans won with relative ease, Neenah voted 79 percent for an amendment, while Menasha gave it 80 percent.
“We need the power of the people to change this situation,” said Katie Schierl, a leader of the petition drive in Neenah and Menasha. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen. This movement is growing all across America—it’s going viral.”
Read Next: This is what dollarocracy looks like
Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008 as an outspoken supporter of a free and open Internet. “I am a strong supporter of net neutrality,” announced candidate Obama, who showed that he knew what he was talking about by adding that any move that “gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different websites…destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Unfortunately, Obama’s appointees to chair the Federal Communications Commission have bumbled the job. Miserably. The current chair has for the better part of the past year been peddling various proposals public-interest groups warn could lead to the development of a two-tier Internet with “fast lanes” for paying content from corporate and political elites while stranding non-commercial and grassroots communications—and citizens—in the slow lane.
That is the opposite of what the president has said he wants since he began addressing the issue in 2007. And on Monday he made his sentiments crystal clear, declaring that:
An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.
Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation—but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
That’s not what FCC chair Tom Wheeler has been proposing over the past several months. In recent weeks, it has been reported that Wheeler is interested in developing an exceptionally complex “hybrid” plan that public-interest groups explain “would split the Internet in two, creating divisions in Internet access and enshrining the notion that people or companies sending information have protections against discrimination, while users have none against their own ISP (Internet service provider).” Such a move would, a proposal that would, according to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “leave the door open for all kinds of discriminatory practices.”
Obama is recommending that the FCC avert that danger by reclassifying Internet services under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, a move that would treating broadband providers the same way as other telecommunication companies and allow for regulation in the public interest. This won’t be popular with the telecommunications conglomerates that would like to be monopolies. And it will be attacked by Republicans (and perhaps even some Democrats) in Congress who do the bidding of some of the country’s most powerful corporations.
But as the president notes, the point of regulation should be to protect the public interest in free and open communications, as opposed to the monopolist interest in profiteering.
“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” the president’s statement argues. “That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”
Public-interest groups hailed the president’s intervention, recognizing it as an critical development—though not the final one—in the long struggle to preserve a free and open Internet. “This is an important moment in the fight for the open Internet. President Obama has chosen to stand with the us: the users, the innovators, the creators who depend on an open internet,” explained the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Corynne McSherry.
But Craig Aaron, the president of the media reform network Free Press, warned, “The struggle for real Net Neutrality isn’t over.” While the president’s action is “a major step in the right direction,” citizens must recognize that “to protect the open Internet that Americans demand, the FCC now must act and reclassify ISPs under Title II.”
To that end, the president has made a specific argument to the FCC and to the American people—using his bully pulpit to advocate for a tech-savvy approach that uses reclassification is smart, effective way. His proposal recognizes that rules established by the commission “have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device” and argues that “the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”
With this in mind, the president outlines absolute standards—what he calls “bright-line rules”—that can and should be upheld:
No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player—not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP—gets a fair shot at your business.
No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others—through a process often called “throttling”—based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs—the so-called “last mile”—is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
This is the approach that has been championed by civil rights, open society and media reform groups for years, an approach that more than 4 million Americans have told the FCC to embrace. They have gotten pushback from telecommunications giants and from the defenders of special interests in Congress. And that pushback will continue.
But the president is right to say that “the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone—not just one or two companies.”
Read Next: John Nichols on why Scott Walker will never be president
The 2014 election campaign was an exercise in dollarocracy, not democracy.
In a democracy, citizens are in charge, votes matter and the governments that take shape after elections reflect the will of the people.
In a dollarocracy, money is considered “speech,” corporations are considered “people” and elected officials take their cues from the billionaires and corporate interests that write the biggest checks. Campaigns cost exponentially more from cycle to cycle (the 2014 price tag will exceed $4 billion for federal races and billions more for state, local, judicial and initiative and referendum contests), and government becomes reflective of the demands of donors.
But that is just the most obvious evidence of the crisis.
Dollarocracy is about a lot more than the money raised and spent in campaigns. It is about the collapse of meaningful journalism, resulting from the downsizing and closure of newspapers, the replacement of local news and talk radio programming with syndicated “content” from afar, the reduction in political coverage by local television news outlets, and the horse-race coverage and spin that tend to characterize national news programs on broadcast and cable television.
When Americans look to television for news, what they get instead is a slurry of spin that tends, all too frequently, to reinforce a broken status quo. Nowhere is this more true that in debates about economics, which tend toward a narrow centrism rather than broad and realistic discussions of income inequality, failed trade policies, and the crisis that is created when crony capitalism replaces sound strategies for maintaining manufacturing and putting new technologies to practical use.
When the economic debate is vapid, when it does not go deep and explore the real questions that vex working Americans, the political process loses meaning. Many Americans simply opt out, which drops election participation rates to shamefully low levels—New York, with a full slate of statewide contests, had the lowest actual turnout since the state Board of Elections began tracking totals in the 1970s; turnout in California and Vermont, both of which had full slates of statewide contests, hit historic lows; in New Jersey, with a Senate contest and several tight House races, turnout was only 31 percent, “possibly the lowest the state has ever seen.”
Those who do get to the polls arrive after having slogged through deliberately confusing fall campaign seasons defined not by reasoned discourse but by the absurdly negative and frequently dishonest ads that are purchased with all those billions of campaign dollars. As such, they vote on the same ballot for state minimum-wage hikes and for Republican senate candidates who oppose federal minimum-wage hikes, as happened Tuesday in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
This is not what democracy looks like.
Democracy requires real campaigns between candidates and parties advancing distinct positions. It doesn’t work when the process is manipulated by big money, when candidates and parties try to tailor their messages to deceive rather than inspire voters. Nor does it work when journalism is so weak, so dysfunctional, so deferent to the money power that it facilitates a narrow and unsatisfying debate.
This is the unsettling reality of our times.
Unfortunately, few political figures are willing to discuss that reality—let alone to speak the truth to power that might change it.
This is why the most important political discussion of the 2014 campaign season was not a candidate debate. And it certainly was not found in the fearsome ad wars that were paid for with all those billions of dollars in campaign donations.
Of course, Sanders explained, “big money (can) put an unbelievable amount of TV and radio ads out there to deflect attention from the real issues facing the American people.”
The notion of deflecting attention caught the ear of Bill Moyers, who has been on both sides of the equation as a White House press secretary in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, as a newspaper publisher and as a highly regarded broadcast journalist.
“Well, that’s interesting,” said Moyers. “Because, you know, I’ve seen you quite recently on television. It’s always the same questions and always the same five headlines. What’s the story that the corporate press is not letting you tell?”
“Oh, my God. You see, this is the issue,” responded Sanders. “I mean, I’ve been on a million of these shows. They say, ’Here’s the story of the day. What do you think about the Secret Service? What do you think about this? What do you think about Ebola?’ All of those issues are important. But the issues that impact ordinary people—they’re asking why, despite all of the productivity, people are working longer hours for lower wages. Have we had that discussion, Bill? Have you ever heard anybody talking about it?”
The nation’s longest-serving independent member of Congress was just getting started.
“And this issue of income and wealth inequality, wow: One percent owning 37 percent of the wealth in America. Bottom 60 percent owning 1.7 percent. One family, the Walton family of Walmart, owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent,” he said. “Do you think we should be talking about that issue? You can’t get the discussion going on TV.”
Then came the vital exchange.
“Why?” asked Moyers.
“Because it’s not in the interest of the corporations who own the networks to actually be educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues. It’s much better to deflect attention away from those issues and get into the story of the day,” explained Sanders.
Moyers understands the problem. So he pressed Sanders with regard to solutions to what he referred to as “this fundamental question facing Bernie Sanders: How do you get your message directly to those who need it most?”
“I wish I had the magic answer,” replied Sanders. “You’re asking exactly the right question…. The idea that you have these working-class people who are voting for candidates who refuse to raise the minimum wage, who refuse to provide healthcare for their kids, who want to send their jobs to China, who want to give tax breaks to corporations, it blows my mind. And that is the issue that we have to figure out.”
For Sanders, one prospect is a presidential campaign—not an ordinary campaign but one that seeks to spark what he refers to as a “political revolution” in America. He is not naive. He knows how hard it would be to take on the economic and political and media elites. But he also knows that something revolutionary will be required to renew democracy in America.
John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), for which Senator Sanders wrote an introduction. The book is just out in paperback.
It was predicted before the 2014 election that if Scott Walker were re-elected by a single vote, the governor of Wisconsin would claim a mandate to run for president in 2016.
So it will not come as a surprise to anyone that—after winning his third statewide run by roughly 135,000 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast—Walker is claiming much more than a new term. His Reaganesque victory speech may have been cheered by his Wisconsin supporters Tuesday night, but it was written for national consumption and delivered with an eye toward jump-starting a bid to be his party’s next nominee.
Walker, who has already written the obligatory presidential campaign book, appeared in Iowa and New Hampshire, bid for the favor of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and built a national fundraising network, was not exactly subtle in his victory speech. Pre-election references to Wisconsin were suddenly replaced with post-election references to America.
But Republicans would be wise to consider the numbers before they presume that this rigidly conservative governor steps onto the national stage with a mandate from Wisconsinites to bid for the presidency. Polling shows that the vast majority of Wisconsinites—87 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans—do not want Walker to seek national office in 2016.
If he does make the run, Walker will have to explain why he has not been able to expand his appeal in Wisconsin.
Usually when a governor seeks the presidency, that governor makes the case that he or she has a winning approach to governing—with a style and policies that can turn doubters into supporters. That’s what George W. Bush did when he sought the presidency in 2000, noting that he won his first term as governor of Texas with 53 percent of the vote and his second with 68 percent.
But Walker cannot claim that his is an expansive appeal.
In fact, the governor won a lower percentage of the vote this year than he received in the 2012 recall election, and he did no better in 2014 than in his 2010 run. This is not to deny Walker’s victory but rather to note that, after four years as governor and somewhere in the range of $100 million in spending by the governor’s campaign and its “independent” supporters and enthusiasts, he does not appear to have convinced anyone who wasn’t with him in the first place.
Compare that with the previous Republican governor of Wisconsin. In 1986, Tommy Thompson was elected with 52 percent of the vote. In his second gubernatorial run, Thompson won 58 percent. In his third campaign, Thompson hit 67 percent.
For Walker, the record is 52 percent, 53 percent, 52 percent.
Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” ethic—which he famously described in a taped conversation with one of his biggest donors—does not require an expansion of his base in Wisconsin. The rigidly conservative, anti-labor and pro-austerity governor is satisfied to win at any cost and by whatever margin he attains.
But for Republicans beyond Wisconsin, who are interested in growing their base in 2016, “divide and conquer” might not sound like a winning strategy. And a party that has won a majority of the national vote in only one of the past six presidential elections has to think about these things.
So, as Walker pivots toward presidential politics, watch for a rapid rewrite of the Wisconsin story—and the Wisconsin numbers.
There is little reason to doubt that Walker will soon enter the formal hinting stage, go through the “exploratory” stage and start bidding for the Republican presidential nomination. Throughout the process, he will make grand pronouncements about his appeal in a supposedly “blue” state—glossing over the fact that Wisconsin is actually a classic swing state that sends a conservative Republican to the Senate along with a progressive Democrat, that backs Democrats for president but that often elects Republican governors and that polls suggest is more bitterly divided than any in the nation.
What Walker won’t note is that, despite all of his campaigning, despite all of his spending, his appeal has not grown. Nor will he mention that he has never been tested when a high-turnout presidential race has been on the ballot.
Republicans who actually look at the numbers will ask themselves why they should get excited by Scott’s Walker’s ability to win 52 percent of vote in a swing state during the same “Republican wave” election when another prospective candidate from a swing state, Ohio’s John Kasich, who won in 2010 with 49 percent of the vote, was just re-elected with 64 percent.
Indeed, while it is unlikely that Scott Walker will actually be the Republican nominee for president, his selection by the GOP would in all likelihood produce another progressive moment in Wisconsin. Just as Paul Ryan’s addition to the 2012 Republican ticket failed to carry Wisconsin for the GOP, so polls have regularly suggested that a Scott Walker-led ticket would very probably fail to carry the state in the higher turnout presidential election of 2016.
Perhaps Republicans are starting to recognize this. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has Walker in last place among Republicans, a wee bit behind Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.
The Republicans have claimed the US Senate, extended their majority in the US House and secured more than their share of victories in state and local races. Now every effort will be made by the many critics of Barack Obama to employ the results of the 2014 midterm elections in the work of writing the president off as a lame duck.
But sixth-year setbacks are common for presidents. And Obama need not let this one define him. Indeed, he has a duty to defend the mandates he received in 2008 and 2012.
This is the point of beginning for the final stage of Obama’s presidency. He can shape the narrative. But if he fails to do so, others will. And in so doing they will diminish not just the president but the will of the people who elected him twice.
This will have less to do with policy—since a gridlocked Washington is likely to remain gridlocked on many issues—than with personalities and palace intrigues that so appeal to political and media elites. Yet, the defining process is significant, as it can influence decisions about whether to negotiate or veto, to hold firm for principles or to search for “grand bargains,” to rally the base or bend to the opposition.
Even before the results started coming in on Tuesday night, much of the pre-election prognostication had Obama headed for full lame-duck status. Never mind that the Republicans had most of the advantages going into the 2014 election cycle: fewer Senate seats to defend, a pattern of Democratic retirements in Republican-leaning states such as Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia; plenty of billionaire friends and corporate allies; and a second-term president with reduced approval ratings. There was never any doubt that a shift in control of the chamber was going to herald a full flurry of “definitive” statements and how Obama has been checked and balanced for the final quarter of his eight years in office.
But does a poor election result necessarily mark the end of a president’s relevance? Should a president whose party fails to perform be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Is this what history proposes?
Consider Ronald Reagan. His Republican allies lost control of the Senate in the midterm election of 1986, the sixth year of his presidency. They went into that year’s contest with fifty-three seats and came out with forty-five. The House was already run by the Democrats, and the eight-seat shift in the Senate was dramatic. Yet most Republicans would tell you that Reagan remained a significant figure in American politics; and, it should be noted, in 1989 he handed the presidency off to another Republican president.
Consider Dwight Eisenhower. Going into the midterm elections of 1958, the sixth year of his presidency, the Senate was almost evenly divided (forty-nine Democrats versus forty-seven Republicans in a chamber where a number of Southern Democrats frequently aligned with the Republicans). In that election, Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats. Many of the new senators were swept in on a wave of frustration with Eisenhower’s farm policies, as were many of the new members of the House—where a solid Democratic majority of 234-201 was transformed by the 1958 election into an overwhelming 283-153 advantage. Yet, Eisenhower, whose approval rating had dropped into the forties in 1958, rebounded to finish his presidency with influence on Capitol Hill and approval ratings that frequently topped 60 percent. In the fall of late 1958, he secured confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice (Potter Stewart); in 1959 he formally welcomed two new states into the union (Alaska and Hawaii); in 1961, he delivered a mighty fine speech about the military-industrial complex, opening a debate that continues to this day.
Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the midterm elections of 1938, the sixth year of his presidency, FDR’s Democrats suffered setbacks nationwide. Republicans gained seven US Senate seats, eighty-one US House seats and a dozen governorships in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Roosevelt’s Progressive and Farmer-Labor allies lost governorships and congressional seats in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The New Deal has been halted,” declared veteran New York Times columnist Arthur Krock. Two years later, however, Roosevelt became the only president ever to re-elected to a third term—winning 55 percent of the popular vote and a 449-82 advantage in the Electoral College.
Of course, the political dynamics of today are different from those of 1986 or 1958 or 1938. The political process is always evolving. But the thing to remember is that presidents can and do play a role in that evolution. They are far better positioned than other political figures to shape it. This is the lesson of history. It is also the prospect that remains on the table now that the 2014 midterm elections have—with due respect to the Louisiana Senate runoff and a few potential recounts—produced a result.
That result is important. But it need not be definitional.
Reagan, Eisenhower and Roosevelt were all written off, decried and dismissed by their critics. Yet they decided that they—not their foes—would write the last chapters of their presidencies.
Presidents have lost the Senate. Presidents have lost the Congress as a whole. And yet, they have governed—sometimes by going to the people and rallying the great mass of Americans to their side, sometimes by outmaneuvering the opposition of Capitol Hill, sometimes by bargaining and bending and compromising.
Obama has plenty of openings to define the last two years of his tenure. The Republicans have not won veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate; the president can still say “no” to them. And on a lot of major issues, that will be the right move. Indeed, for Americans who fret about the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress, the best response will be to push and prod the president to stand strong against the economic and social compromises that might be demanded conservative Republicans and by corporate Democrats—and that will surely be cheered on by the newspaper editorial pages that seem to think any deal is better than the dreaded gridlock.
The president should refuse to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He should use his executive authority to suspend deportations, and to force a real discussion about comprehensive immigration reform, He should reject, absolutely, every proposal to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
If the president’s resolve begins to weaken on any of these issues, activists should not hesitate to demand that he recognize what is at stake—not just politically but practically for the great mass of Americans who do not have the resources to buy elections or pay for lobbyists. These are the people who elected Barack Obama president in 2008 and 2012. They gave him a mandate and he has a responsibility, to his supporters and to himself, to defend it with his veto pen, his executive orders and his bully pulpit.
None of this bars the prospect of reasonable compromise and cooperation. But Obama and his allies should be determined to assure that it is the president, not his opposition, that defines the terms.
Things have changed in Washington as a result of the 2014 election, and they will change a good deal more in the weeks and months to come. That is certain. But how things change, for Obama and the Democrats, for Mitch McConnell and the Republicans, remains up for grabs. That may be unsettling, even disappointing, for those who believe that every election is the most important in history. But history tells us that presidents can and do survive midterm setbacks. Indeed, it is the ability to survive and even to thrive in the aftermath of a midterm setback, that has characterized this country’s most remembered and frequently revered presidents.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why Obama should double down.
If Republicans make significant gains in Senate races Tuesday, then politics will be following pattern. Presidents who are elected by big margins initially and then re-elected comfortably tend to have a lousy time of it in their sixth years.
Ronald Reagan won big in 1980 and won bigger in 1984. He had the Senate with him until 1986, but then the Republicans lost it—bad. Democrats picked up eight seats and took the chamber.
Dwight Eisenhower won big in 1952 and won big in 1956. He had a Republican Senate on and off through much of his tenure, and even the when the Democrats were in charge the margin was close. Then came 1958. Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats (including two from the new state of Alaska). They also secured an overwhelming 283-153 majority in the House of Representatives.
If Republicans pick up the six seats they need to secure clear control of the Senate tonight—or after runoff elections in Louisiana and Georgia—that will be big news. But the real question is what happens with the governorships.
In a wave election, the party that wins big in congressional races also wins big in the states. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republicans took the US House, shifted plenty of Senate seats and made big gains in statehouses. That’s also what happened in a number of historic wave elections.
But will it happen tonight?
It could. According to the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” assessment of recent surveys, fourteen gubernatorial races—including contests in battleground states such as Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—are ”toss ups.” (That compares to eight “toss ups” in Senate contests.)
Why? Because, while Republicans in Washington have produced gridlock over the past four years, Republicans in statehouses have advanced an agenda. Republican governors moved after the 2010 election to implement austerity policies that, while different from state to state, have included assaults on labor unions and funding for public education and public services. Those have not proved to be economically sound, or it turns out politically popular.
How voters express their distaste for austerity in the states could send the clearest signal of the 2014 election cycle.
If, that is, the analysts can be torn away from the jockeying for position in Washington.
Like it or not, the first measure that political insiders and analysts will make of the 2014 results will be a federal one. That’s the nature of contemporary American politics, which have become increasingly Washington obsessed. It is easy to assess the numbers in the Senate and to make grand pronouncements about what that means for President Obama and for the contestants to replace him in 2016. But this is not the only measure. And it may not even be the truest measure.
The results from gubernatorial races will tell us a great deal about where the country is really at after the most expensive midterm election campaign in American history.
If a significant number of these Republican governors lose, the results from their races will be as instructive as the results from the competition for control of the Senate. We’ll learn something if governors who undermined public education, like Sam Brownback in Kansas and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, lose. We’ll learn at least as much if anti-labor governors like Maine’s Paul LePage, Michigan’s Rick Snyder or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker lose. And, yes, it will be telling, indeed, if Republican Rick Scott loses to Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in the ultimate battleground of Florida.
It will be just instructive if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity, such as California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, are re-elected. And if Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is re-elected in Illinois, that will be a win for labor unions—as would be a win for an advisory referendum on raising the minimum wage in that state.
The same would go for wins for proposals to increase wages in the Republican-leaning states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. And if Massachusetts endorses a paid sick leave proposal, that will be a big deal.
Control of the Senate matters. And there will be plenty of talk about what it means if—as has so frequently happened in the past—the party of a president in the sixth year of his tenure loses seats in the chamber.
But the Senate competition is not all that matters. The signals from those contests for control of the statehouses—and the even more direct signals from referendums on minimum wage and paid sick leave referendums—will matter, as well.
If Republican governors who have embraced austerity are re-elected, that could confirm that another Republican wave has swept America. But if some of those Republican governors who have embraced austerity lose, and if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity win, then there will be more—much more—to say about the 2014 election.
Read Next: John Nichols on how Barack Obama is going for the governorships
The American Future Fund is an enthusiastically conservative organization that each election season fills the airwaves with ads hailing right-wing causes and socially conservative Republican candidates, while ripping Democratic officials and contenders.
But, this fall, the dark-money group is also jumping into battleground states with social-media campaigns hailing third-party candidates, legalization of marijuana and “our progressive values.”
Confused? Don’t be. In close races, those third-party candidates might just pull a few votes away from Democratic contenders, who are specifically attacked in the ads. Yes, that’s playing the margins. But when money is no object, every strategy gets tried.
Welcome to the brave new world of hyper-cynical, win-at-any-cost, big-money politics.
This is how it works.
The American Future Fund explains that it “operates as a 501(c)(4) and was formed to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint to have a mechanism to communicate and advocate on the issues that most interest and concern them.”
Practically, what that means is that, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org project, “AFF spent just under $24.5 million on independent expenditures during the 2012 election cycle—nearly all of it (about $20.8 million) in support of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and against President Obama.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group “received more than 92 percent of its 2012 revenues from two organizations connected to Charles and David Koch.” This year, one of the primary Koch-backed groups says it is moving money elsewhere; but the American Future Fund remains flush with cash.
As a footnote, the Center for Responsive Politics reminds us, “As a nonprofit organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code, American Future Fund does not have to disclose its donors.”
Nor does it have to abide by the standards that most Americans associate with politics. It can pretty much write its own rules. And so it has.
This fall, the American Future Fund and another group, American Future Fund Political Action (a “separate” organization that describes itself as “a federal political committee which primarily helps members elect candidates who reflect our values through a variety of activities aimed at influencing the outcome of the next election”) are busy, busy, busy—spending millions, millions, millions. American Future Fund Political Action’s involved in House and Senate races all over the country. The group’s attacks on Democrat Bruce Braley are among the roughest being aired in the very rough Iowa US Senate contest, and it’s just up with television ads condemning Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
But the American Future Fund is not always so negative.
The American Future Fund has over the years had very nice things to say about socially and economically conservative Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—going so far as to purchase newspaper ads hailing the controversial anti-labor governor for “promoting innovation.”
And, of course, this fall the group is producing lots of fun-and-freewheeling social-media ads—with cool music, cool colors and hip references to Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley. The ads are directed at supporters of full legalization of marijuana in general. In particular, they seek to acquaint young voters with third-party candidates who want to help Americans “get high” and “get blazed.”
Though the American Future Fund does not list marijuana legalization, expansion of access to medical marijuana or drug-law reform as a part of its mission as “a voice for conservative principles that sustains free market ideals focused on bolstering America’s global competitiveness,” the group has produced and paid for expensive social media campaigns drawing attention to Libertarian candidates who do support legalization of marijuana.
In the tight North Carolina US Senate race between Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, the American Future Fund is spending heavily to circulate ads that explicitly say, “Don’t even think about voting for Kay Hagan. She doesn’t share our values. You want legalization of marijuana, she’s against it. You want to stop sending our troops overseas, she voted for it. Vote Sean Haugh: He shares our progressive values: pro-legalization, pro-environment, more weed, less war.”
Haugh, a pizza deliveryman who so far has spent under $10,000 on his run, is the sudden beneficiary of $225,000 in spending to talk up his candidacy—and to tear into Kay Hagan. The Libertarian tells reporters on Twitter that he feels like “a character in a Camus novel” and frets about the “dark money” influence on the race.
The American Freedom Fund won’t identify the source of the money that is paying for the ads. As noted above, the group benefited in 2012 from substantial funding from another group that is backed by billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch, Freedom Partners. A Freedom Partners spokesman told reporters that the organization is not currently funding the American Future Fund. Fair enough. It’s no secret that Koch brothers money flows in many directions at election time and, of course, the Koch brothers are not the only right-wing donors who this year have been spending heavily to help Republicans retake control of the Senate.
What is beyond dispute, as Reason notes, is the point of the advertising campaign. This, the libertarian publication explains, is “clearly an attempt to pull a certain class of possible Democratic voters away from incumbent Kay Hagan, and thus likely help the chances of Republican Thom Tillis.”
Nor is there much dispute with regard to the American Future Fund intervention in the close Wisconsin gubernatorial race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke.
The American Freedom Fund has been enthusiastic in its championing of Walker in the past. But, suddenly, it is spending money on ads that attack Mary Burke and talk up the Libertarian candidate Robert Burke. “It’s time to clear the air about who will legalize marijuana in Wisconsin. It’s not Mary Burke,” declares one ad. “It’s Robert Burke. As governor of Wisconsin, Robert Burke will legalize it. Vote Burke. Get Blazed.”
Robert Burke, a serious and sincere Libertarian, is not playing along.
“I do endorse fully full legalization in Wisconsin, but I don’t endorse quite the way that these ads are being positioned,” says the Libertarian candidate. “They are being done primarily to draw votes away from Mary Burke.”
Burke refers to the American Future Fund “Red Team” as “morons.”
But, even if the ads are absurdly over the top and disrespectful of the broad and deep concerns of young voters, there is a method to the group’s madness.
Moving even a small number of young voters away from Mary Burke and toward Robert Burke could be definitional in a close finish. Walker has throughout his tenure polled poorly among voters who are under the age of 30. There are a lot of reasons for this. But it is a fact that the governor is an extreme social conservative who talks about marijuana as a “gateway” drug and has made support for drug testing of food stamp recipients a major theme of his 2014 reelection campaign.
On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, Burke, supports legalization of medicinal marijuana and has a track record of social moderation that is more in sync with young voters. She’s also talking about ways to make college more affordable, to ease the burden of student-loan debt and to promote job growth for young people.
So young voters, even if their turnout rates are lower than those of older voters, could decide a very close race for Burke. Indeed, says Mary Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki, “They know that with the last two polls of the election showing a dead heat, they are pulling out all the dirty tricks to try and save Walker from defeat.”
To be fair, that’s just one explanation.
The other is that a group with a long history of promoting conservative agendas and talking up right-wing, socially conservative Republicans has suddenly developed an interest in preserving “our progressive values,” protecting the environment, legalizing marijuana and engaging politically with voters who might be inclined to “get blazed.”
In June of 2014, Senators Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Rand Paul offered a rare show of election-year unanimity when they penned a joint statement arguing that “it is more important than ever to let Congress and the administration know that Americans will reject half-measures that could still allow the government to collect millions of Americans’ records without any individual suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.”
Udall and Wyden, both Democrats, and Paul, a presumed contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, declared, “It is time to end the dragnet—and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans’ constitutional rights.”
Essential to that initiative, the senators suggested, is “a groundswell of public support for reform.”
Just five months later, the strength of that groundswell will be tested in Colorado. Udall, the senior senator from that state, is in the fight of his political life with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner. It’s a brutal, high-stakes battle, and polls suggest Gardner has a slight advantage.
If Udall loses, “it would be a significant loss for the movement” to hold the NSA to account and to renew the privacy rights of Americans, says Laura Murphy, who heads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“What Udall has is the institutional memory, and the relationships in the civil liberties community, in the Democratic Party and in the tech industry so that we don’t have to start over again with someone new,” Murphy told The Hill, which has highlighted concerns about what losing Udall would mean to the fight to restrain the NSA.
Constitution Project senior counsel Scott Roehm summed those concerns up when he said, “Were Senator Udall to lose, I think he would be sorely missed. He was one of the earliest voices for meaningful surveillance reform even before the Snowden leaks.”
Why so much concern about one senator?
It has a lot to do with the courage and consistency of Udall’s objections to NSA abuses. The Colorado senator has been a genuine watchdog: calling for Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan to resign after it was revealed that CIA operatives had been spying on the communications of Senate staffers, challenging his colleagues to establish effective oversight of intelligence agencies, demanding meaningful checks and balances and criticizing President Obama for failing to end the excesses of the Bush-Cheney era.
“Mass collection of our phone and Internet records started under a Republican president, continued under a Democratic one. I won’t tolerate it,” Udall tells voters. “As Coloradans, our rights include the freedom to be left alone.”
This willingness to defend privacy rights against abuses—no matter who is in power—distinguishes Udall and only a handful of others in the Senate. That’s why a writer for Reason magazine, the country’s essential libertarian publication, observed last week that a Udall loss “could be grim news for civil libertarians hoping to rein in the NSA.”
Grim news, indeed. So grim that it raises the question: Shouldn’t the preservation of Fourth Amendment protections be a high enough priority that responsible Republicans might want to put partisanship aside and defend a senator who has emerged as an essential advocate for the Bill of Rights? Shouldn’t Rand Paul be speaking up for Udall—if not with an explicit cross-party endorsement then at least with an acknowledgement of the principled positions taken by the senator from Colorado? Shouldn’t civil libertarians from across the poitical and ideological spectrums, Democrats and Republicans, Greens and Libertarians, recognize that the Colorado race is not just another contest in the jockeying for control of the Senate?
The idea of putting aside petty partisanship in order to speak up for a principled senator is not some radical new notion. In the 1960s, Oregon Democratic Senator Wayne Morse said he intended to vote for Oregon Republican US Senate candidate Mark Hatfield because they shared strong opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the 1990s, Arizona Senator John McCain, a conservative Republican, made no secret of his regard for progressive Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, because of their shared commitment to campaign finance reform.
The Fourth Amendment has too few defenders. Feingold, the sole senator to oppose the Patriot Act in 2001, was defeated in the Republican “wave” election of 2010. Now, the prospect of another Republican “wave” threatens Udall. Those who recognize that privacy rights must be preserved must recognize that the threat is not just to Udall but to the cause of the Constitution.
Barack Obama has had a rough fall. Six years into a hard presidency, he’s wrestling with global instability, a pandemic, an uneven recovery and gridlocked governance. His national approval ratings are down, and his Republican critics are absolutely determined to paint the president as a “toxic” element in the midterm mix. But Obama does not look toxic on the trail through the states where he has begun a final round of 2014 campaigning that is focused, energetic and potentially significant not just for Democrats in close and critical gubernatorial races but for a party that has failed at too many turns this fall to provide a coherent and consistent message.
Obama is actually trying to do something interesting on the trail. He is making a case that is antithetical to the crude, fear-based politics of 2014 by arguing not just for voting but for believing that voting matters. This is not abstraction. Midterm elections have significantly lower turnout rates than presidential elections, which tends to favor Republicans. Additionally, plenty of people who voted for the president and for other Democrats in 2008 and 2012 are now put off by the process, legitimately frustrated not just with obstructionist Republicans but with compromising and politically cautious Democrats.
Obama on the trail is acknowledging the frustration, recognizing widespread cynicism about whether voting matters and then pushing people to believe again—if not entirely in the prospect of changing Washington then at least in the prospect of changing their states.
“You just assume that there’s not much you can do with Springfield and Washington,” Obama argued when he campaigned earlier this month with Governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. “And each and every day you’re fed a message that what you think doesn’t really matter, that your experience doesn’t matter, that nothing you can do is going to make any difference, and both parties are in the tank… And you start being skeptical of every politician. And you start believing that it’s not worth voting. Well I’m here to tell you that that kind of cynicism is a choice you’ve made.”
That, argues Obama, is the wrong choice. “You have power,” he has told voters in Chicago and Milwaukee and will tell voters in Portland and Providence and Detroit and Bridgeport—and perhaps even a few more places before November 4.
There is in Obama’s focus on gubernatorial races an unspoken acknowledgement that 2014 election results are not at all likely to produce a Congress that is any more friendly to him or to his policies. But those results are likely to include big wins for popular Democratic governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Mark Dayton in Minnesota, as well as defeats for Republican governors in as many as a half dozens states.
Obama knows that governors have a role to play in critical decisions regarding the success or failure of his policies, and his party. That’s particularly true when it comes to acceptance of federal Medicaid funding for the expansion of healthcare initiatives, which in turn has an influence on the success of the Affordable Care Act. But it also true with regard to a host of federal transportation, communications and education initiatives.
So the president is betting on the gubernatorial races to provide some important wins on November 4. And gubernatorial candidates in some of the closest contests in the country are betting on him.
That makes political sense. Many of the governors elected in the Republican “wave” election of 2010 are vulnerable this year. Many of them are on the ballot in states that Obama won easily in 2012 and where he tends to retain a good measure of personal popularity: Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Maine, Rhode Island, Michigan and Connecticut.
A lot of Obama’s 2008 voters failed to show up in 2010. Now, he is trying to get his 2012 voters to show up in 2014. In the states where he is campaigning, he has good reason to believe that he can still make the connection with folks like 24-year-old Maryland voter Heather Conyers, who attended a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown and told The Washington Post, “Since the president is behind him, I’ll be behind him.
The United States does not produce universal approval or disapproval ratings for its presidents. And that reality has always shaped strategies for midterm elections. There were states where Republicans wanted Ronald Reagan to campaign with them in the 1982 and 1986 midterm elections, and there were states where Republicans (especially in those days when the party still had a number of moderate and even liberal senators and governors) preferred that the president stay away. There were states where Bill Clinton was welcome as a campaigner, and there were states where local Democrats ran away from their president; notably, in 1998, it turned out that an impeachment-threatened Clinton actually had a lot more appeal than some of his partisan allies imagined.
The key in any election cycle is to achieve the right calculus. And some Democrats this year are making the calculation that Obama can and should play a significant role in their closing appeals for votes and for volunteers to get votes by making last-minute calls, knocking on doors and driving people to the polls. This is practical and potentially important, politics.
Despite the right-wing spin and silly punditry of the moment, there are Democrats in tight races who are ready and willing to appear with the president. And the president is giving them a lot more than a cursory tarmac tap. He is trying to move Democrats from the broad category of “registered voter” category to the narrower category of “likely voters.”
That will decide the elections in a lot of states, such as Wisconsin. Consider this: In the final Marquette Law School poll before Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, what has long been seen as a close contest between Governor Scott Walker and Democrat Mary Burke remained so among registered voters with Walker at 46 percent and Burke at 45 percent. However, among likely voters, it was Walker 50 to Burke 43. As the election approached, the percentage of Republicans who said they were “certain to vote” moved from a previous 82 percent to 93 percent. The percentage of Democrats who said they were “certain to vote” moved only from 80 percent to 82 percent.
Democrats need more registered voters to become likely voters. Obama knows this.
In Milwaukee Tuesday night, Obama rallied supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Burke. The crowd of 3,500 greeted the president with great enthusiasm, broke into applause regularly and rocked the room with chants of “Obama.” No president, no political figure, objects to that sort of attention. But Obama steered the discussion toward Burke—highlighting her background and taking jabs at Walker that were rooted in the specific issues of the race and the evolving debate.
“Mary Burke doesn’t believe that the minimum wage ’serves no purpose,’ as one Republican said,” declared Obama, in reference to a remark Walker made earlier this month when asked about his administration’s controversial claim that $7.25-an-hour is a living wage.
“She wants to give Wisconsin a raise,” Obama said of Burke, who supports raising the minimum wage in Wisconsin to $10.10 an hour.
The president linked specific complaints about a conservative governor’s opposition to assuring that people who work forty hours a week will not live in poverty to a broader critique of Walker, who has fallen far short of keeping his promise to create 250,000 new jobs. “Wisconsin lags the rest of the country when it comes to job growth,” explained Obama. “So the country as a whole is doing better; Wisconsin is not doing so good. Over the next week, you have the chance to change that. You have a chance to choose a governor who doesn’t put political ideology first, who’s not thinking partisan first.”
Of course, there is a purpose to all this: getting potential Democratic voters excited about casting ballots for a Democratic candidate in a close race. But Obama recognizes that simply telling folks to grab a friend and head for the polls is insufficient, especially in a year where overall enthusiasm is low and turnout rates could dip below not just what was seen in 2012 but potentially below that of past midterm elections.
As the president travels this week, he isn’t just campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. He is campaigning against cynicism—and the apathy that extends from it.
“Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice,” he says. “Hope is what gives young soldiers the courage to storm a beach. Hope is what gives young people the strength to march for women’s rights and civil rights and voting rights and gay rights and immigrant’s rights. Hope is the belief that there are better days …. That we can build up a middle class and can give back something to our communities and hand down something better for our kids. Hope is what built America, not cynicism.… Go out there and vote.”
Read Next: 7 GOP governors who may lose re-election