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Did Obama lose America? Or did Democrats lose Obama?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are many reasons Democrats are likely to lose the Senate on Tuesday. But two of the most important reasons flatly contradict each other.

Reason one: President Barack Obama is unpopular, with only 40 percent approving of his job performance, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Reason two: President Barack Obama isn't on the ballot.

This is the paradoxical problem Democrats face in the midterm: they're dragged down both by Obama's presence and his absence. In a column entitled "How Obama Lost America," Ross Douthat argues that "in many ways, Republicans have enjoyed in 2014 the kind of landscape they expected in 2012: A landscape in which nobody save Democratic partisans particularly supports President Obama anymore."

That's true, but it misses an important point: Obama's value to his party is that Democratic partisans turn out to vote for him. In 2012, Democrats made up 38 percent of the electorate. In 2010 — without Obama on the ballot — they were only 35 percent. And remember, too, that those are national numbers — Democrats are an even smaller percentage of the electorate in the states that will decide control of the Senate:

But as bad as the map is, if all the Democratic partisans who still support Obama turn out on Tuesday Democrats will have a much better night than the polls predict. But they probably won't. The election results over the past six years suggest Obama knows how to make the case for supporting congressional Democrats, but congressional Democrats don't know how to make the case for supporting Obama.

Part of that, of course, is the absence of Obama's vaunted campaign operation, which has turned turn-out into something nearer to science than art. But in an interesting column at the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein argues that the other problem is that, absent Obama, Democrats don't have a brand that their supporters actually care about:

[T]he performance of the Obama White House and his party's congressional candidates has largely been a case study in how to destroy brand equity: Democratic candidates begging the Democratic president not to campaign for them and, in one memorable instance, refusing even to say whether she voted for him. The president and candidates rarely mentioning, let alone defending, their landmark health reform legislation. Party leaders pleading with the president not to take executive actions on immigration or climate change before the election. A Democratic Senate willing to put off action on urgent or popular issues out of fear that Republicans will force tough votes on controversial amendments.

Now, on the eve of the election, Democratic candidates find themselves caught in a vicious cycle in which their refusal to embrace and defend their party's brand is discouraging the faithful and turning away the undecided, threatening their election prospects still further. What Benjamin Franklin said of revolutions also applies to political campaigns: Those who don't hang together will surely hang separately.

I think that's right, but as bad as the Democrats' brand might be, it's still better than the Republican brand:

Dem Rep favorable 1

Pew

The deeper problem for Democrats is that just as Obama isn't on the ballot, nor is any particular Republican opposing Obama on the ballot. That's another way in which, to go back to Douthat's point, Republicans are now getting the election they were looking for back in 2012: in a lot of states and districts where voters haven't been paying close attention — and very few voters are paying close attention in this midterm  — it's Barack Obama versus generic Republican.

In 2012, Democrats won in part because the election was a choice between Obama and Romney — and Romney, in the end, turned out to be an actual Republican, rather than a blank slate onto which voters could project their frustrations. What Democrats are not sure how to do is win a referendum just on Obama — particularly when he's not actually on the ballot.