Is Obama doing enough to help Democrats for Election 2014?

Fundraising alone won't be enough for the congressional midterm elections, says the House's No. 3 Democrat. Obama's help turning out the vote will be key for the party, Rep. Jim Clyburn suggests.

Riccardo De Luca/AP
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Fiumicino Airport, March 28, 2014 in Rome.

Could President Obama and the White House do more to help Democratic House and Senate candidates for the 2014 election? That’s what assistant House Democratic leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said Monday during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“There are some things I would like to see done,” said Representative Clyburn in response to a question about the extent of Team Obama's involvement in the midterm political effort.

The White House has put a lot of effort into raising money for 2014, said Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership. Mr. Obama has done multiple fundraisers for individual candidates. But the money race tends to even out, and fundraising won’t be crucial to eventual control of the House and Senate, according to Clyburn.

“I do not believe fundraising will be key in November. I think organization will be key,” he said.

Clyburn went on to praise the Obama political machine’s groundbreaking 2012 contact and turnout efforts in states such as Ohio and Florida. Right now, those advances aren’t being used at state and local levels to help party candidates, Clyburn added.

Asked if he’d like to look directly into the “Morning Joe” camera and ask Obama for his help, the South Carolina Democrat demurred.

“No, I’m going to get on the phone and ask him,” he said.

On social media sites on Monday these comments have attracted a fair bit of sarcastic attention, mostly from Republicans but also from some Democrats. The basic point of these is that Clyburn is wrong, in that many down-ballot candidates don’t want to be associated with an administration that has low approval ratings. Many Democratic candidates literally won’t share a podium with the president, in this view.

Well, maybe, but we’ve got a couple of comments on this subject. The first is that Clyburn’s full comments get at a little-noticed aspect of midterm election politics. He noted that the White House needed to provide more help specifically because in 2014 there is not a national ticket. In presidential years, more Democrats show up at the polls to vote. In midterms, Democratic turnout drops off.

GOP turnout drops as well, but not as much. That’s because Republicans are disproportionately older and wealthier, and age and income are directly related to the propensity to turn up at the polls.

What Clyburn wants is technical help to overcome this structural disadvantage.

However, he may be exaggerating the possible effectiveness of the White House's turnout “ground game.”

Data analysis that political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck did for their book on the 2012 campaign, “The Gamble,” showed that Obama contact and turnout efforts may indeed have won the president Florida’s electoral votes. But other than that, the advantage they conveyed may have been only marginal.

“The effects of electioneering were visible, but they were not large enough and lopsided enough to determine the winner,” wrote Mr. Sides last year on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog.

And Democrats need more than a marginal boost to win the House and retain control of the Senate. In fact, Sides himself on Monday says his election-forecasting data model predicts that the GOP has an 80 percent chance of taking control of the Senate.

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