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How Democrats can win in 2014, even if they lose

Written By | Apr 2, 2014

WASHINGTON, April 3, 2014 — America’s laureate of number crunching, Nate Silver, raised the hackles of Democrats recently by putting the Republicans’ chances of winning a majority of the United States Senate in 2014 at 60 percent. Though Senator Harry Reid and company may bristle publicly at Silver and other forecasters, the maps and math point to a difficult election year for the Democrats.

No matter how seemingly disastrous the results are for Democrats on November 4, they can set themselves up well for the future if they continue collecting and paying attention to the voter data.

Low expectations mean that Democrats really can’t lose in November from a macro-messaging standpoint: Every defeat will be expected, and every victory will be an upset. Against this backdrop, the Democratic National Committee are like a baseball team that falls out of the pennant race by Labor Day and calls up a bunch of minor leaguers for September; there’s plenty of time for experimentation to see what they have for next season.

For Democrats and their allies, that means identifying voters who get turned on by issues like wealth redistribution, environmental regulation, and expanding government’s roles in health care — something they have been doing for the better part of a decade. It also gives the party a chance to figure out who the low-propensity voters are, what motivates them, and how to talk to them.

Those voters may not show up this year, but the presidential cycle of 2016 will be a different story. There will be a higher voter turnout then, and 24 Republican Senate seats will be up for grabs, against just 10 seats held by Democrats. If Democrats do their homework this summer in places like Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they could reclaim any 2014 GOP Senate gains and pick up a some Electoral College votes for their presidential nominee. That type of thinking worked in 2012, when data culled from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s victory in a recall election helped President Barack Obama carry the state in November.

Lest Republicans worry, they have a similar opportunity.

There are high expectations on the Republican side, thanks to a favorable messaging environment and more Democrat-held seats in play. A renewed focus on data mining, technology, and grassroots contact will amplify those advantages.

GOP leaders have stressed the need for a long-term field presence. That type of strategy will prove absolutely crucial, especially in the higher-participation, higher-stakes 2016 cycle. Winning in 2014 will be important, but more important will be winning in a way that helps out in 2016.

Republicans will almost definitely gain Senate seats in 2014; Democrats may lose so many that it ends their eight-year reign in the upper chamber. The next morning, pundits and talking heads will kick off a week of telling us “What It All Means.”

But it will be far too soon. More important than who wins and who loses will be how they win or lose – and we won’t know those answers for another couple of years.


Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham is a grassroots political consultant and Vice President of Advantage, a voter contact and mobilization firm. He has designed and implemented campaigns merging multiple online and offline tactics for a range of political and advocacy organizations. Eltringham lives in Centreville, Virginia with his wife and their two daughters.