Kentucky and Virginia have been treading opposite political trajectories for the past 20 years, but on Election Day 2015 they came together to deliver a clear warning that the Democratic Party is in a much weaker political position than most of its supporters realize. The Kentucky result, in which a reasonably popular Democratic attorney general was bested by a Tea Party favorite last seen getting crushed by Mitch McConnell in a primary, has garnered more attention. But it's Virginia that's the more profound sign of the party's rot.
The root cause of the rot is something progressives generally know deep down but are reluctant to admit. The Blue Team in American politics, the one whose leader sits in the White House and used to be a community organizer, has gotten routinely out-organized by conservatives, who inhabit denser, more meaningful social networks and exhibit concurrent greater political awareness and commitment.
A disappointment in Kentucky, a disaster in Virginia
The loss of the Kentucky governor's mansion comes as a serious disappointment to Democrats, but largely because it confirms a trend the party has mostly learned to live with — Kentucky and Kentucky-like places have broken hard to the right in American politics as the Democratic Party coalition has become more firmly based on nonwhites and secularly minded college graduates. The local Kentucky version of the Democratic Party puts a different face forward than the national party — less culturally liberal and fanatically devoted to the Cult of Coal — but the growing nationalization of politics advantages the Kentucky GOP.
Democrats' more fundamental problem is that these same trends ought to help them in Virginia, which has a large African-American population, growing Latino and Asian voting blocks, and a very well-educated set of white people.
And in many ways it has helped them. Barack Obama carried Virginia twice, both its senators are Democrats, and the Virginia House delegation is so GOP-tilting largely because of gerrymandering.
But to cure that gerrymandering, Democrats need to make gains in the state legislature, both houses of which are in Republican hands. The party picked up zero seats this week, including two closely targeted state Senate races in districts that went heavily for Obama in 2012, largely because of low turnout. Midterm elections see lower turnout than presidential elections. Elections held on odd-numbered years see even lower turnout. And elections like Virginia 2015 that are on an odd-numbered year but with no gubernatorial election on the ballot see the lowest turnout of all. Yet low turnout is not a symmetrical phenomenon in American politics. Instead, it delivers an electorate that is systematically more conservative than the electorate in presidential elections.
Turnout is about organizing
It would be foolish to chalk up Democrats problems at downballot politics exclusively to low turnout. Low turnout isn't why there's a Republican governor of Illinois, and low turnout isn't why coal country is trending red. But differential turnout is a constant gravitational force on American politics, skewing the building blocks of American politics to the right even while it skews the commanding heights to the left.
Yet it's not a law of nature that Democrats don't show up to vote. It's a consequence of political organizing.
To see why, it's worth skipping past the trollish framing and fully reading Eitan Hersh's recent 538 article about school board elections. In this specific case, it's Democratic Party politicians — not Republicans — who deliberately seek weird election dates in order to encourage low turnout. The reason is that teachers unions like it this way. And the reason for that isn't that public school teachers are rich or politically conservative — it's that public school teachers are well-organized politically.
That means teachers talk to one another (they work together, after all) about questions of public policy (everyone talks at work about work, but public school teachers' work is public policy), and they also have hierarchical channels of information dissemination (the union itself) through which this work talk can connect to practical politics. In other words, if something important to teachers is happening in politics, the union leadership will know about it and pass that on to the leaders in each school. Those leaders then have a natural opportunity to disseminate information horizontally to their colleagues, and their colleagues can engage at least a handful of non-teacher friends and family.
What a well-organized group of people does when faced with an election is: realize that the election is happening, obtain some grasp of the stakes, and then vote.
Progressives are weak at organizing
Every local area in the United States, no matter how liberal, features a local chamber of commerce through which leaders of the business community engage one another on issues of common interest. The other major civic institution in American life is the church, and people who attend religious services regularly are much more likely to vote Republican.
When and where labor unions are a big deal; they serve as a counterbalancing force of organization. But where they have few members — which is more and more places these days — there is not a great deal else to offer. Secular people don't meet weekly to hear a little speech about secular values and their application to ongoing events in the community, and environmental groups are generally not real mass-membership organizations that directly engage ordinary people.
Political scientist Philip Klinkner posits that a spell out of the White House will cure what ails Democrats. I'm not so sure, but even if it's true, it underscores the extent of the peril the party is in. Republicans have a perfectly plausible path to total political domination — win the 2016 presidential election — while the Democrats simply don't.