Some Lessons for Democratic Strategists and Other Observers

by Stuart Rothenberg November 19, 2014 · 12:38 PM EST

You could feel it from Day One of this cycle. Senate Democratic strategists knew they were smarter than their Republican adversaries. They’d out-think them and out-work them.

Incumbent Democratic senators who run good campaigns rarely lose, I was reminded. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to his seat, won a tough race in 2010. So did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. And Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill did the same in 2012.

This cycle, vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states such as Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana had great political names and deep connections to the voters. They knew how to win, just like Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana did two years ago. (Of course, Heitkamp and Donnelly won in a presidential year, with its different dynamic.)

How many times did I hear or read that Sen. Mark Pryor was no Blanche Lincoln? That comment was meant to highlight Pryor’s political strengths, but also to throw Lincoln (who lost re-election in 2010) under the bus so party strategists didn’t have to look at why she lost and how hostile the Arkansas terrain has become for any Democrat.

“They have their own brands,” I heard repeatedly about Pryor and Sens. Mark Begich in Alaska and Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana from Democratic operatives and journalists.

But, Bennet, Reid and McCaskill were victorious because the GOP nominated horrible candidates against them, not because the Democratic candidates had such untouchable brands, Democratic strategists had unique insights or party operatives knew how to win tough races.

To some Democratic strategists, their candidates weren’t only smarter and better connected to voters. Their campaigns also knew how to identify their voters and turn them out. Democrats were miles ahead of the GOP when it came to “field,” the party’s highly touted ground-game.

I can’t count the number of times I heard or read about the vaunted Democratic field operation, whether in Little Rock or the most isolated areas of Alaska. Even I came to think it might matter.

I was told, for example, Democrats were registering and would boost turnout among African-Americans in Arkansas, which would change the arithmetic in that race and improve Pryor’s prospects.

I wondered why black voters who didn’t turn out for the first African-American president in history were going to flood to the polls for Pryor, or how Pryor would do well enough with whites for the party’s field program to matter. But Democratic Senate operatives had their charts and graphs to show how Pryor could survive the midterms.

As it turned out, African-Americans constituted 12 percent of the Arkansas electorate in 2014 according to the exit poll, the same percentage they constituted in 2008 and 1 point more than they constituted in 2010. (There was no exit poll in Arkansas in 2012.)

But while Democrats did a decent job turning out black voters this year, Pryor received virtually the same percentage of white voters as Lincoln did in 2010 (31 percent) and Obama did in 2008 (30 percent). Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s 2010 statewide performance, 37 percent, wasn’t much worse than Pryor’s 2014 showing or Obama’s 2008 statewide showing (both 39 percent).

And then there was the subject of Republican polling. Democrats seemed shocked that a thinking person would give any weight to GOP polling, which, they noted quite correctly, was seriously amiss in 2012. But Republicans took steps this cycle to correct their errors, and GOP polling often was more accurate than Democratic polling during the 2010 midterms.

At various times throughout the cycle I heard observers — sometimes Democrats, sometimes Republicans, often journalists — announce prematurely one of the GOP’s top-tier Senate challengers was toast, a victim of his or her own weakness or the Democrat’s brilliant campaign.

I heard it about Alaska, where Begich allegedly had localized his race successfully and would win re-election even in a Republican wave, and about North Carolina, where Democrats had defined and destroyed challenger Thom Tillis.

And, of course, there was Arkansas, where Republican Tom Cotton was so boring, so serious and so charisma-challenged that he couldn’t possibly beat Pryor, who understood how to campaign in the South.

Interestingly, all of this smugness wasn’t apparent on the House Democratic side. Those folks seemed more realistic about their prospects from the start, possibly because House races are more susceptible to a partisan wave and the party was already in the minority.

It will be interesting to see whether Senate Democratic strategists sound more realistic during the 2015-2016 cycle than they did over the past two years, as well as how Republicans operate when they don’t have the wind at their backs and a favorable map.

Republicans would be making a mistake to think that they have all the answers and have caught up with Democrats in all aspects of campaigning.