A false optimism crushed

Back when the campaign season began, before polling created a false optimism about their prospects, victories by Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn seemed unlikely. But if they could make a good race of it — if they could finish within five points of their Republican opponents — Georgia Democrats could take it as a moral victory and a sign of progress in their long-term goal of turning Georgia competitive.

They lost by eight.

Yes, it was a bad year for Democrats nationally; yes, the Republicans succeeded in turning the race into a referendum on an unpopular president; yes, the midterm electorate is almost always more conservative than it is in presidential years.

Still, they lost by eight. There had been talk that even in defeat, Georgia Democrats would at least be able to accelerate the transition to a battleground state by a four-year election cycle. That did not happen.

And Barack Obama had a lot to do with it. David Perdue and his backers spent millions of dollars on ads linking Michelle Nunn to Obama, and exit polls showed that was a wise strategy. Forty-seven percent of Georgians who went to polls said that they disapproved strongly of Obama’s performance as president. Again, they didn’t merely disapprove: 47 percent strongly disapproved.

When 47 percent of the electorate walks into the voting booth already strongly opposed to the president of your party, you are left with a very small pool of voters who are open to your message. Paul Bennecke, Perdue’s chief strategist, captured it perfectly:

“If you look at our ads, there wasn’t a whole lot of change because our data didn’t show that we needed to. We were nationalizing the election, and then we would win.”

The same was true all over the country. Democrats are supposed to lose in Georgia, but not in places like Massachusetts or Maryland. They lost governors’ races, they lost Senate races, they lost House races. Mitch McConnell will become Senate majority leader and will do so by a comfortable margin.

I don’t know who said it first, but he or she said it best: That wasn’t an election night; for Democrats, that was a season-ending episode of “Game of Thrones.”

Prior to and during the campaign, you heard some Democrats insisting that the party should have taken a more populist approach, stressing issues such as raising the minimum wage and addressing income insecurity. Instead, the party stressed … well, I’m not sure what they stressed.

The exit polls, however, suggest that those advocating a more populist approach may have been right. Here in Georgia, pollsters found that 56 percent of those who showed up to vote would support raising the minimum wage, while just 40 percent opposed it. Again, that’s in conservative Georgia, with a conservative, older, whiter mid-term electorate.

National exit poll numbers confirm that sentiment. Sixty-three percent of Americans who voted said they think that the economic system favors the wealthy, while just 32 percent described it as fair to most Americans. As political strategists of both parties plot how to approach 2016, they are going to be looking long and hard at numbers like that, because they contain a lot of political opportunity as well as danger.