It is no secret that Democrats have not performed well at any levels of elections, with the exception of the presidency in the last three elections. After 2014, the Democrats' smallest number of seats in the House in the modern era and their loss of the Senate got most of the attention. However, perhaps more importantly, Democrats also wound up with their lowest number of state legislators since the 1920s. Republicans now have unified control of 24 of the 50 states, while Democrats control just seven. Democrats don't even have unified control of liberal bastions, such as Massachusetts and New York, while Republicans have unified control of 5 states (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Nevada) that Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. The disaster for Democrats at lower levels has allowed Republicans not only to easily implement their agenda at the state level, but also to produce a much deeper bench of potential candidates for federal elections.
There have been many suggested diagnoses for Democrats' problems at lower levels. The most common and convenient is redistricting -- or more specifically, gerrymandering. Another problem mentioned is voters that come to vote for the top-line race, such as governor or president, but don't continue to vote in the lower level races. The final problem commonly cited is simply poor candidates and party focus.
Using the example of the New York State Senate, we find that the issue is not the convenient boogeyman of gerrymandering nor the disappearing down ballot vote that is destroying Democrats' chances, but the simple factor of poor or sometimes non-existent candidate recruitment.
NEW YORK SENATE
In the run-up to the 2014 election, Republicans were technically in the majority despite holding fewer seats than Democrats because a handful of Dems chose to caucus with the Republicans rather than their own party. Democrats had high hopes that they would be able to take back the Senate, but they would end up losing seats despite Governor Andrew Cuomo easily winning re-election.
Leading up to the election, many were also afraid Democrats would lose because of badly gerrymandered districts that favored Republicans. Once the defeat was official, it was the popular choice for why Democrats had failed.
If it were as simple as Democrats getting gerrymandered out of seats, it would be apparent at other levels of races as well. The problem is that Democrats have consistently performed much better in statewide and federal elections on a district-by-district basis than their own candidates for state Senate.
In 2008, Barack Obama won a whopping 53 of the 62 districts in the state, while Senate Democrats only won 32 seats. Even in 2014, after the "gerrymander" was put in place in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo won 41 districts while Senate Democrats only managed to win 31. Because matching the Governor's performance would result in a 41-22 majority for Democrats, it is tough to argue that Democrats have no chance to win back the Senate solely because of gerrymandering.
Democrats might also be the victim of getting voters to the polls for higher level races, but not getting them to keep voting all the way down the ballot. This is an extension of Democrats' struggle to get voters to turn out in the non-presidential elections theory. The less important the race, the lower the Democratic turnout.
However, there is only minimal evidence of this occurring. Among the districts that Governor Cuomo won where both parties were running candidates, the drop-off rate was only slightly higher (4 percent) compared to Republican districts where the drop-off rate was 3 percent. The split districts with both a Cuomo and Republican Senator win also saw slightly higher-than-average drop-off rates.
While this may indicate that Democrats could have changed some outcomes by encouraging more voters to vote all the way through the ballot, these data points have one major flaw. The problem is that the districts with the biggest down ballot drop-off rates were almost exclusively in non-competitive races. Among the 15 closest Senate races, the drop off rate was a minuscule 1 percent. There aren't nearly enough missing voters to swing any of these districts to Democrats. In fact, the 41st District was the closest race that Democrats lost in 2014 and turnout in that race was actually higher than the race for Governor in that district.
DOWN BALLOT FOCUS
If the problem isn't gerrymandering or voter drop-off, it can only be that voters chose to split their ticket and vote for a Democratic Governor and a Republican State Senator. This is far from being just a problem in New York. Democrats are simply not recruiting good enough candidates and putting in the resources to win elections at lower levels.
While we don't have a PAAR score for candidates at the state legislative level, many Democrats in New York's Senate clearly would have gotten negative scores. In 8 of the 10 seats Senate Democrats lost that Governor Cuomo won, Democrats ran more than 10 points behind Cuomo.
The most discouraging result is the 50th District, Cuomo won by nearly 5,000 votes. However, Democrats did not even put forward a challenger at the state legislative level and haven't done so since 2010. Being unable to find a candidate to run in what should be a competitive district illustrates the questionable decision-making and priorities that the Democratic Party has pursued and led them to their disadvantaged position in the state legislature.
When faced with a disappointing election result, it is tempting to point the finger at all sorts of issues. Whether it is gerrymandering, campaign finance rules, or turnout, Democrats have a variety of well-worn excuses to comfort themselves after a disheartening loss. Unfortunately, these excuses are used all too often to distract the party from the bigger issues that are lurking beneath the surface. The party simply does not do a good enough job of focusing on lower level elections and has been far too complacent with success in higher levels of office.