The two major problems that Democrats face in the 2010 elections are:
Determining which of these problems is most severe will help determine Democratic strategy in not only the 2010 elections, but in the legislative season leading up to those elections. Should Democrats appeal more to a progress-leaning base unimpressed by Democratic accomplishments so far, or should they turn toward a conservative-leaning swing vote that is slowly finding Republicans more appealing?
- Voters who supported Democrats in 2008, but who are shifting toward Republicans (or other parties) in 2010;
- Voters who supported Democrats in 2008, but who will not vote in 2010.
Over at Pollster.com, Charles Franklin looks at the data in New Jersey and Virginia. He concludes that a shift of Democratic-voters toward Republicans was a bigger factor in the Democratic defeats in those states than was the lower turnout among (mostly young) Democrats.
Franklin's conclusions are not entirely convincing, because it is difficult to separate the two variables from each other. For example, the large shift among Independents toward Republicans was partially caused by lower turnout among young, Democratic-leaning Independents. The pro-Republican shift among Independents was not just caused by Independents switching their vote from Democrats to Republicans.
However, even if it is not possible to definitely prove whether lower Democratic turnout or voter shift to Republicans is the main problem facing Democrats, even attempting such a determination may present a false choice. First, both of these problems exist, and so addressing only one is always only a partial strategy. Second, there may well be ways to appeal to both disillusioned voters and to swing voters at the same time.
Too often political analysts look at the electorate in the same way that they look at winning a majority of votes for a piece of legislation in Congress. There is an underlying belief that appealing to progressives will lose conservative voters, and vice versa. However, that is not necessarily the case among voters, for whom delivering on promises, objective economic conditions, and the apparent cultural orientation of politicians are often just as important as abstract ideological considerations.
Obviously, improved economic conditions will be one way to simultaneously appeal to disillusioned voters and to swing voters. There might be other ways as well, including an improved national image in the rest of the world, or even success in major 2010 international sporting events (Olympics and World Cup). Clamping down hard on corruption within your own party couldn't hurt, either. Whatever the best paths might turn out to be, the best strategies will reject an either / or of exciting the base and appealing to swing voters as an unnecessary false choice.