According to complex voter models and updated theories of voter psychology, we can now state: Democrats are in trouble in 2014, particularly in the close Senate race in North Carolina. Thanks, science!
OK, that's a little unfair. Two new reports from The New York Times and The New Republic offer a lot more context to the known travails of the Democratic Party. The endpoint is the same — unless Democrats manage to turn more friendly voters out in November, they're doomed — but the path to get to that conclusion has gotten more interesting.
In North Carolina, the problem for Democrats is younger voters, as Nate Cohn reports at the Times' new blog The Upshot. When incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan won in 2008, she did so by winning 71 percent of the vote from 25-and-under voters who composed 10 percent of the electorate. She won handily, but that strong support from young voters puts her reelection at risk. Young people tend to vote less frequently in midterms; in 2010, the last midterm, only 4 percent of the electorate in North Carolina was 25-and-under. But the split for Hagan in 2008 leads Cohn to conclude that the problem "is twice as damaging to Democrats in North Carolina than it is nationally."
Nationally, the problem is slightly different. UCLA's Sasha Issenberg (author of The Victory Lab) has the cover story at The New Republic, spelling out the reason Democrats are in trouble everywhere else. Voter turnout peaks during presidential elections, thanks to the importance of the office and the attention paid to the race. During midterm elections, turnout falls. The people who vote tend to be people who are older and wealthier: retirees, people with more flexible work schedules, etc. While that has in the past been Democrats, older and wealthier voters are now more heavily Republican. Psychology plays a role at the edges — independents use midterms as a referendum on the president; partisans either vote from enthusiasm or stay home — but the core fight is over who is and isn't likely to vote.
As Issenberg illustrates in a graphic distinguishing between the reliable voters (which he calls "reflex" voters) and the unreliable ones, the latter group is younger, more diverse, more female, and less conservative. And less likely to vote in November.
The challenge for the Democratic Party in 2014 is to get reliable voters to vote Democratic, and to get unreliable voters to the polls — a challenge which exists, to some degree, in every campaign for every candidate. Knowing that turnout makes a difference in low turnout elections, the party is emphasizing face-to-face contact from volunteers knocking on doors, the method of persuasion shown to be most effective. They're focusing on whatever tricks can be employed to get people to remember to vote on Election Day, including asking people (however subtly) to develop a mental plan for the day. But field programs, like the ones Issenberg describes, can only win very close elections. (Walking around and knocking on doors is a slow and highly incremental way to increase turnout; phone calls and mail are not as effective.)
Democrats got a bit of good news last week, as The Upshot determined that they led in key Senate races. That estimate has switched; Republicans are now more likely to take control of the Senate in January 2015 — because they lead slightly in states like North Carolina. The Democratic Party thinks it can spend enough money to get enough people to turn out to flip that narrow margin — which probably wouldn't be reflected in polling, because it revolves around turning out an unlikely electorate. So we will see.