What's at Stake for Obama in 2014

Edward Wyckoff Williams
President Barack Obama shakes hands. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It is no surprise that President Barack Obama, who has already faced improbable odds and still managed to do the impossible, will soon face one of his greatest challenges yet. 

The 2014 midterms are perhaps the most important election of Obama's presidency, offering the last opportunity to circumvent an obstinate GOP selfishly committed to his failure. But given what's at stake — maintaining the Senate while attempting to take back the House, with its high number of gerrymandered Republican districts — the Democratic Party will need to galvanize African-American, Hispanic and youth voters of all races at levels not seen since 2008. Furthermore, Democrats must find qualified candidates who reflect the rainbow coalition that elected Obama in the first place. 


The recent GOP media frenzy — currently fueling pseudo-scandals and hurling accusations of misconduct and incompetence — is the latest manifestation of a Republican commitment to playing dirty politics. Benghazi-gate is designed to keep the conservative base angry and engaged, while the Associated Press subpoena affair pits the media against the White House in a head-to-head battle, an ideal strategy for a GOP that has consistently accused the "mainstream media" of being too favorable to the president.

Likewise, the IRS debacle is a shrewd effort to ensure that conservative and Tea Party super PACs like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS — which enjoys the coveted 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status — will maintain an unbridled ability to raise unlimited funds, campaigning in key legislative districts to defeat liberal Democratic candidates and moderate Republican alternatives for congressional, state and local positions.


If the Republicans win the 2014 midterms, the result may lead to a wave of newly elected right-wing extremists — like those who gave Republicans the House in 2010 — who will continue the GOP's mission of obstructing key issues like gun control, immigration reform, universal health care and women's reproductive freedom. Worst of all, the GOP's efforts may succeed if the historical trend of low voter turnout in midterm elections manifests itself again in 2014.

"I don't think Democrats understand how difficult it will be to mobilize black and brown voters when President Obama is not at the top of the ticket," said veteran Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who spoke exclusively to The Root about the 2014 midterms. "And we need a strategy. Not just talking points." 


Cummings, who has spent the past few months working tirelessly to get a gun-control bill passed — only to see his efforts thwarted by the Senate's Republican minority — is especially concerned. "I hadn't considered how the Republicans are playing a long game, but they are," he said. "The midterms will matter even more now; otherwise GOP obstinance spells doom for the president's second-term agenda and his legislative legacy."

Voter-participation rates from the 2010 midterms offer reasons for both hope and cautious action. 


Key to Obama's 2008 victory and his subsequent "shellacking" in 2010 was the youth vote — and African-American youths in particular. Voters ages 18 to 29 helped catapult Obama to office by making up 18 percent of voters overall, according to a Tufts University study (pdf). By the 2010 midterms, that figure had imploded to 9 percent.

In 2008, young African Americans dominated the landscape among youth voters, showing the strongest turnout of any racial or ethnic group since 1972, according to the Tufts study. Hardly discussed is the fact that this "Obama effect" actually continued into the midterms, with young black voters delivering a 27.5 percent participation rate, up from 24 percent in 2006. By comparison, young whites experienced a dramatic decrease, going from 28 percent turnout in 2006 to 24.9 percent in 2010.


That drop among white voters may be a direct result of the Republican Party's racially divisive and obstructionist tactics used against the Obama presidency. Its strategy of deliberately making government dysfunctional and then using it as a wedge issue invariably led voters to become disillusioned — thereby choosing to stay home.

And despite the upward tick in the African-American youth vote in 2010, the overall percentage of black voters declined. In fact, the percentages of young voters, African-American voters and Hispanic voters all decreased — down by 55 percent, 43 percent and 40 percent respectively.


So who showed up in 2010? A study by Project Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, found that of all voters in the midterm elections, four out of five were white, and they tended to be older and wealthier. Seniors — inundated with GOP propaganda that Obamacare would destroy their Medicare benefits — delivered an increase of 16 percent over the 2006 contest. And 59 percent of those elderly voters cast a ballot in favor of Republicans, up 10 percentage points from the prior midterm. Voters making $200,000 a year or more came out significantly (an increase of 11 percent), and 41 percent of them said they supported the Tea Party movement.

So do Democrats have a strategy for the midterms? Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responsible for vetting, supporting and helping to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives. His primary job is to deliver a Democratic majority. Israel told The Root: "The Democratic Caucus is now majority women and minorities — reflecting what our country looks like — while the Republican Caucus is 90 percent white men. Their top priority is to obstruct and block President Obama at every turn and put their special interests ahead of the common interest. We will run a door-to-door, house-to-house campaign to get the message out."


But getting voters to the polls isn't the only concern. Israel's insights underpin a vital issue for Democrats: Key to victory will be running people of color with whom Obama can campaign to help boost minority and youth turnout. With the face of congressional leadership being Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and a possible 2016 primary featuring Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats have a diversity problem, too. Investment in young black and brown candidates for House, Senate and gubernatorial races is essential to ensure President Obama's electoral legacy — not just his legislative one.

The good news? The DCCC appears to have learned lessons from the ground-game offensive perfected by the Obama for America team in both 2008 and 2012. In addition to underestimating the demographic shift that delivered the president a multiracial coalition, Republicans also lacked campaign resources, especially in battleground states like Florida and Ohio. These are places where Obama's campaign offices never closed after 2008 — and the DCCC intends to keep that effort going.


Ryan Daniels, the deputy national press secretary for the DCCC, told The Root: "The DCCC is committed to having a pool of diverse candidates. Rep. Donna Edwards [D-Md.] heads our recruitment efforts, and she is focused on both ethnic and gender diversity. This focus, coupled with our organizational structure, gives Democrats the competitive advantage."

It remains to be seen what comes of the Democrats' good intentions, but President Obama is already thinking ahead. He has committed to eight fundraisers on behalf of the DCCC and two for the DSCC — its Senate equivalent — and he has already outpaced Republicans on donations. 


With a GOP hell-bent on turning hope into fear and change into indifference, President Obama's ground game must become making the Republican majority obsolete.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. 


Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Share This Story