Democrats ran the Obama 2012 playbook this cycle and fell flat. The 2014 midterms were a historic drubbing for the president's party. It was the first time Republicans had flipped more than two Democrat-occupied Senate seats since 1980 and their victories in the House gave the GOP their largest majority since 1947.
“Most campaigns this cycle really tried to take all the innovations of 2012 and apply them to the statewide and down-ballot level, which is actually a difficult thing to do,” says Andrew Bleeker, who heads the digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. “We’ve made really good progress within channels, within digital, within television and field, but we still really radically suffer from using data to make decisions between and across channels.”
Rubbing salt in the Democrats' wounds is the fact that some Republicans had success borrowing from their playbook. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was hit for voting with President Obama “95 percent of the time.” It was a message borrowed from the incumbent’s own race against former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).
“The fact that Kay had campaigned against Senator Dole in 2008 on her 92 percent voting record with the President gave us the best number-mover we had,” says Brad Todd, whose media firm OnMessage Inc. consulted for successful challenger Thom Tillis (R). “Kay had not only failed to be independent, she had been a hypocrite too.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic messaging around female voters — known by the shorthand “war on women” — seems to have backfired in Colorado. Soon-to-be former Sen. Mark Udall (D) was heckled by one of his own donors during a pre-election rally after uttering the line: “I’m proud to stand for reproductive freedom.”
Udall lost to Republican Cory Gardner by four points. Still, one Colorado strategist says he got his message right.
“If anything, this race proved Democrats have won on reproductive rights,” says Laura Chapin, a Colorado-based public affairs strategist.
She noted that Amendment 67, a ballot question of whether to give a fertilized egg “personhood” under state law, failed. “The only way Gardner could win was by ceding the argument to Udall and lying about his position on choice,” says Chapin.
Another troubling sign for Democrats in Colorado: Latino voters abandoned Udall. The incumbent won 63 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, but that fell by roughly half this cycle, according to a report citing exit polls.
One of the reasons for this decline could have been Udall’s refusal — like most Democratic candidates this cycle — not to message in Spanish around immigration.
Some Democratic strategists tell C&E they were able to pivot to issues like jobs and the economy, which Latino voters also care about. But the dampening effect of the president’s failure to come through with an executive order on immigration meant that Latino voters peeled away from the party.
Still, some Democrats were able to close the gap using technology, according to Michael Pratt, CEO of the digital firm Extra Sauce, who consulted for Rep. Rob Bishop's (R-Utah) challenger Donna McAleer (D).
“We put everything into NationBuilder. It got her millions and millions of impressions. It was the only way she raised money," Pratt says. "She's set up for another run."