How the Democrats Lost: The Failed Ground Game

The combined Democratic campaign placed a large portion of its 2014 success on the premise that they would use a massive investment in technology, grassroots strategy, and boots on the ground to reprise the Obama urban coalition of minorities and younger voters.

It failed miserably, and Democrats around the nation paid the price. Why? Because district size matters.

Looking at the voter turnout results by the geographical size of Congressional districts shows just how big the failure was. Republicans hold 218 districts (a magic number) 650 square miles or larger while Democrats hold only 75 that large. This should be enough in itself to make rural Democrats hear footsteps.

As exemplified in the table below, population density is a very solid predictor of vote behavior.

Turnout table

America’s one-third most rural districts are bed-rock Republican: the GOP holds 113, Democrats hold 30, and two have yet to be decided. Conversely the one-third most urban districts are lever-pulling Democratic: Democrats hold 114, Republicans hold 30, and one seat has yet to be decided.

From 2012 to 2014, rural turnout dropped 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}. This only becomes important when compared to the massive 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} drop in urban district turnout over the same period. While urban America often turns out at a lower percentage than their rural counterparts, the Democratic power base forfeited a net 3.3 million voters (compared to the rural vote), which certainly contributed to success for Republicans in statewide races.

The ineffective Democratic turnout machine also failed in middle-third GOP suburbs and exurbs. Republicans hold 101 of these seats, Democrats hold 41 and two are yet to be decided. Compared to ‘12, suburban and ex-urban turnout only fell by 38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, or four points more than rural turnout but nine points LESS than urban turnout.

The Democratic urban power base lost an additional million votes to GOP suburbia and exurbia in the turnout war.

The bottom line is that Democratic dominated urban districts didn’t turn out close to 4.3 million voters compared to their suburban and rural counterparts. And, while most of these urban Democrats kept their seats, Democratic statewide candidates felt the sting.

An apples-to-apples Blue State example: In Illinois’ five-most rural districts, the average drop-off compared to ‘12 was 28{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}. By contrast, in Illinois’ five-most urban districts the average drop-off was 37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}. In these five districts alone, Democrats left nearly 30 thousand voters out of their heartland when compared to the rural districts.

Brian O’Bannon provided analytical assistance for this report.

*Congressional Districts (AL-4, AL-7, FL-12, FL-14, FL-15, FL-21, FL-24, FL-25, FL-27, and OK-1) were omitted from voter turnout calculations due to incomplete data.

Public Opinion Strategies