With the rather large exception of the White House, these are dark days for the Democratic Party. The 2014 election left the party with 188 seats in the House of Representatives, its lowest count since the Truman administration. Their 46 seats in the Senate put them almost at their Bush administration nadir in that body. They totally control the governments of ten states — by having both halves of the legislature and the governor or having supermajorities in the legislature to overrule the governor — whereas Republicans control a whopping 23. Even if Democrats hold on to the White House in 2016, and even retake the Senate, winning back the House would take a miracle.
All of this has sparked debate as to how doomed the party really is. Are Democrats caught in a doom loop that ensures long-term decline? Or is there nothing wrong with the party that a loss in a presidential election, and ensuing gains in Congress and states, couldn't fix?
After reviewing the numbers, and talking to some political scientists doing research on related issues, I think pessimists are too pessimistic, but they also have a point. A Democratic recovery is possible, but it'll take a while. And America's increasing racial diversity — which is usually seen as the Democrats' ace in the hole — may not necessarily help.
How Obama's losses compare with those of past presidents
First, it's worth noting that losses under Obama have been large even compared with those of other two-term presidents — but they're not shockingly large under the circumstances. It's normal for the party in the White House to lose ground elsewhere. That said, as this graphic by Vox's Sarah Frostenson demonstrates, Obama's losses in the House are bigger than even those suffered by Republicans under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, or by Democrats under Bill Clinton when their decades-long stranglehold over the body finally ended in 1994. Nixon and Ford may have lost more at the state legislature level than Obama, but Obama's losses dwarf those of any two-term president since.
However, governorships and the Senate are a more mixed story, with Clinton posting larger losses:
Another complicating factor is that Obama came into office on the heels of two massive Democratic waves. Democrats gained a combined 52 House seats in 2006 and 2008; their 68 seat loss was larger but not hugely so. Perhaps they were just reverting to the mean. By comparison, Republicans lost House seats in both 1998 and 2000, before George W. Bush took office, before gaining 11 in 2002 and 2004. Because the gains were under Bush's presidency, that makes his net losses smaller, but it doesn't necessarily mean he caused less damage to his party than Obama did. By the same token, Democrats actually lost House seats in 1992, as Clinton took office. Democrats' massive House losses during his presidency were, unlike Obama's losses, not a correction of huge initial victories. That might indicate they were a more serious setback than Obama's losses — a judgment congruent with the view of the 1994 election as a major realigning moment in which Democrats permanently lost most of the South.
Just how bad are things for Democrats now?
But things look tougher for Democrats if you simply compare where they stand at the state and House level with recent history. This chart, for example, tracks how many state legislatures Democrats control and how many states they control outright (either through both the legislature and the governor or through supermajorities in the legislature):
Currently, Democrats only control ten states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have Democratic legislatures and governors, while Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts have Republican governors but Democratic supermajorities in their legislatures. Democrats haven't controlled this few states since 1996.
Things are also bleak in the House. This chart tracks the share of seats in both the House and Senate controlled by Democrats from 1937 onward (for comparability with the above chart):
Democrats' 188 House seats put them at their lowest level since 1947-1949. Republicans have actually had a larger majority in this Congress than that one, because in '47-'49 there was a member of Congress from the American Labor Party, a New York–based socialist party to the left of the Democrats; taking that into account, Republicans have enjoyed their biggest House majority since the Herbert Hoover administration.
How hard will it be for Democrats to recover?
When any party is in a trough as deep as the one in which Democrats currently find themselves, recovery is difficult. Voters tend to prefer incumbents, and now that most incumbents are Republicans, that puts Dems at a decided disadvantage. And Democrats in particular have a number of knocks against them. Their base just doesn't turn out in midterm elections the way Republican voters do. Republican-led redistricting and the concentration of Democrats in urban areas have given the GOP an advantage, too. This could be solved with proportional representation, Stanford's Jonathan Rodden explains in an email, but "the overall effect is clearly an under-representation of the left due to the use of single-member districts."
Finally, big wave elections in Congress and the states tend to only happen when parties aren't in the White House. And given that Democrats do better in presidential years, and have more states' electoral votes locked up than Republicans do, it could be a while before they're out of the White House and able to recover elsewhere.
How Democrats have more of a race gap than they think
Demographic factors complicate matters, as well. On the one hand, the shrinking white share of the population, and thus the electorate, should be good news for Democrats, who have more or less always lost the white vote. That's made Democrats pretty confident about their prospects going forward, with some analysts forecasting an "emerging Democratic majority."
But increased ethnic diversity could also have the effect of making white people more right-wing. Research by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos suggests that when confronted with different racial groups, even liberal voters turn rightward. In one study, Enos sent pairs of native Spanish-speaking Latino men to ride commuter trains in Boston, surveyed their fellow riders' political views both before and after, and also surveyed riders on trains not used in the experiment as a control.
"The results were clear," Enos wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes."
This happens outside of experiments, and among more than just white people. In another study, Enos found that in the 2008 presidential primary in Los Angeles County, support for Barack Obama in overwhelmingly Latino precincts was negatively correlated with proximity to overwhelmingly African-American precincts. In other words, the closer a Latino neighborhood was to a black neighborhood, the likelier the former was to vote for Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama.
As America gets less white, inevitably more white citizens are going to come into regular contact with nonwhite citizens, which could lead to the kind of dynamics Enos describes on a mass scale. The problems don't arise as much when neighborhoods are well-integrated, but they're a major problem in cities and other areas that are racially diverse but geographically segregated — in other words, "in America." That's bad news for Democrats. "This difficulty is deeply structural and hard to overcome," Enos wrote me in an email. "As long as we live in a segregated, racially diverse society, a large portion of white voters will favor the party that does not include racial minorities."
Mitigating this problem a bit is the broader trend of black and Latino suburbanization. More black and Latino voters in the suburbs means that Democrats are more competitive outside cities and are less concentrated in small urban districts, where they rack up huge majorities while losing elsewhere. "African-American suburbanization is one of the most interesting and least studied demographic trends of recent decades," Rodden says. "Suburbs are becoming more heterogeneous with respect to both race and income, which raises the possibility that Democrats can begin to obtain a better geographic support distribution."
Same goes for Latinos, Rodden says: "The basic political geography problem for Democrats has been dramatically reduced in only one decade as the Interstate 4 corridor in Central Florida gained large numbers of Puerto Rican migrants, and transitioned quickly from majority Republican to majority Democratic." This is all good news for Democrats. But it also means more parts of the country where racial groups are living close to each other, which triggers the kind of backlash Enos's research identifies.
Democrats can win again. But they're in quite a hole.
Democrats' losses are surmountable. Especially considering the context that the Obama-era losses were preceded by historic wins, there's no reason to chuck out the operating assumption that control of government will alternate between the parties fairly regularly, with divided government being the norm as control of Congress shifts to the opposition during midterm elections.
But there are a variety of reasons why this recovery will be tougher than most. The presidential loss Democrats would need to build majorities at the congressional and state level might have to wait until 2020 or even 2024. While black and Latino suburbanization is reducing Democrats' geographic problem, white racism could blunt whatever advantage they gain from that. And Democrats' minorities are just much smaller than they've been in decades. Democrats aren't doomed, by any means. But they're not likely to escape the hole they're in for a long while.
Correction: This post originally said that Democrats now control 7 states; a reader pointed out that the Democratic supermajorities in the Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois legislatures mean they should count as Democratic-controlled under our definition here. The post, and its charts, have been updated accordingly.