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The simple truth about what really went wrong for Democrats in 2014

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After an electoral defeat, recriminations and second-guessing are inevitable. And human nature being what it is, it is tempting to fall prey to the pundit's fallacy — the belief that the mistake candidates for office are making is a failure to embrace policy ideas that are near and dear to your heart personally.

And this, I am afraid, is exactly what too many liberals are doing this week. Harold Meyerson says Democrats lost because of an "intellectual and ideological" failure to answer the question "what, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent?" His colleague Robert Kuttner thinks "pocketbook populism" would have done the trick. Over at The New Republic, Alec MacGillis thinks the Democrats had a winning message in 2012: "We, the Democrats, are on your side, and those guys, the Republicans, are not."

I like these ideas. And it's precisely because I like them that I recognize I'm all-too-likely to want to believe them regardless of the evidence. So consider this: the Democratic nominee (or Kansas equivalent) in every single contested Senate election outperformed President Obama's approval rating in the voting booth:

This suggests that even though seven of those nine candidates lost their races, they all did a pretty good job of selling themselves to the electorate. Jeanne Shaheen did a great job, but they all did good. It is absolutely true that nothing Mark Pryor or Allison Lundergan Grimes or Mary Landrieu did seemed very inspiring or appealing to the kind of committed liberals who write post-election articles fretting about what "the Democrats" did wrong. But they ran in states that contain very few people like that. They needed to find messages that appealed to voters who think Obama is a bad president advancing a bad agenda, and they did it well.

In most cases, just not well enough. But architects of 2014 campaigns were operating with an albatross around their neck — an unpopular incumbent president. Political science shows that votes for state legislators are heavily influenced by assessments of the president. It stands to reason that votes in congressional elections, where it actually makes sense to be influenced by your assessment of the administration, would be influenced even more strongly. Under the circumstances, Democratic candidates didn't need your pet policy ideas or slogans. They needed people to like Obama better.

UPDATE: Several readers have written or tweeted in to observe that a comparison of vote totals to approval ratings is inexact. This is true. To an extent, though, we have to work with the evidence we have available. But I'll note that in the 2012 exit polls, 54 percent of voters said they approved of the job Obama was doing as president and 53 percent said they have a favorable opinion of Obama. He got 51 percent of the vote. So it's not as if getting people who don't approve of Obama to vote Democratic anyway is a trivial matter. Obama's vote totals underperformed relative to his approval rating.