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Alishia Tisdale, proud of the small role she played in Barack Obama’s two White House victories, says she turns out whenever the presidency is on the ballot.
Yet life got in the way for this 27-year-old mother of four, a nursing student, when Florida held a special election for an open congressional seat last month. Without her or a lot of other Obama-backers voting, Democrats lost that contest by almost 2 percentage points in a district the president carried by 1.5 percentage points in 2012.
“The day of the voting, it seemed like everything just went wrong,” Tisdale said. “I had school, my car broke down. I just didn’t make it to the polls.”
A fall-off in turnout is the biggest threat Democrats face in the 2014 midterms when the electorate will trend older and whiter, two constituencies their party hasn’t won in recent elections.
That potentially more hostile voter pool comes amid other signs of trouble for Democrats. In October, nonpartisan political analysts had just one race featuring a Democratic incumbent, Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas, rated a “toss-up;” five such contests now have that ranking.
Outside money from groups such as a committee founded by the billionaire industrialist brothers, Charles and David Koch, has helped make more Senate races competitive, plowing money into ads targeting vulnerable Democrats.
Add, finally, a factor that political strategists call “the environment:” Obama suffering lagging public approval, the nation’s economy undergoing a slow recovery, and polls showing voters closely divided over which party’s candidates they’re likely to back in November.
Obama’s approval rating has run at an average of 42.9 percent in eight national opinion polls conducted since March 20, matching former President George W. Bush’s standing in early 2006, when Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate in midterm elections that he called “a thumpin’.”
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, has raised her estimate of Republicans taking control of the Senate from a 25 percent chance last fall to 50 percent today. The tilted turnout of midterm elections is only part of her calculation.
“We are weighting environment much higher -- the president’s approval ratings, the generic congressional ballot, just basically what Americans are thinking,” Duffy said in an interview. “The Republicans have been able to expand their own playing field, putting races on the map that weren’t there.”
Republicans need to gain six additional seats to take control of the Senate, and Democratic incumbents are defending most of the hotly contested seats. The party’s chances of retaining seats it now holds in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Michigan are all rated toss-ups by the Cook Political Report. The report rates two other Democratic seats -- in West Virginia and Montana -- as leaning Republican.
Americans for Prosperity, a secret-donor group founded by the Koch brothers, already has run TV ads 21,014 times in House and Senate races through April 7, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising -- more than twice as many as anyone else advertising in the 2014 campaign.
With ads hammering Democrats for support of the president’s Affordable Care Act, the Koch-backed group has targeted nine Senate races where Democrats are defending seats. Its four top targets: incumbents Pryor, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska.
Democrats, focused on their turnout challenge, say they are investing $60 million in a data-driven, door-to-door, mailbox and e-mail appeal to targeted voters in a campaign the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee calls the “Bannock Street Project.”
It draws its name from the Denver campaign headquarters for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s 2010 campaign, when he was seeking a full term after being appointed to his seat in 2009. He believes he won a close contest in part by rallying a higher-than-predicted voter turnout and, as current DSCC chairman, he is putting his Colorado model to work for the party.
“This is going to be a turnout election,” Bennet said.
The DSCC says it spent just $7 million on this sort of work nationwide in 2010 -- $2.5 million in Colorado. This year, it is combining intensive polling with a paid staff and volunteer efforts to fuel a voter-turnout drive in 10-12 states, counting on gaining one- to four-percentage point advantages from it.
“It is something we are hyper-focused on,” Matt Canter, DSCC deputy executive director, said in an interview. “The purpose behind these efforts is to make the 2014 electorate look more like 2012 than 2010.”
They’ll need that, based on the results of the year’s first congressional election, the one Tisdale skipped. In the March 11 face-off for the House seat on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Republican David Jolly won by fewer than 4,000 votes, with about 184,000 cast. Just 39.5 percent of registered voters turned out. He defeated Democrat Alex Sink, who narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2010.
Tisdale, who is black and said she was motivated to vote for “the first black president,'' also said she would have voted for Sink because Jolly campaigned in opposition to the president’s health-care law.
‘‘Once I saw the election, I was like, ‘Aw man, she lost,’’’ Tisdale said of Sink.
Tisdale also sat out the 2010 midterm elections, when the president’s party lost control of the House.
David Plouffe, architect of Obama’s first presidential campaign and author of ‘‘The Audacity to Win,” has called the Florida results “a screaming siren that the same problems that afflicted us” in 2010 “could face us again.”
In the 2010 elections, 45.5 percent of those Americans eligible to vote did so, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The youngest voters, those 18 to 24, turned out the least, at 21.3 percent. The oldest turned out the most, with 62.1 percent of those aged 65 to 74 voting. Among the age groups, only the youngest voted Democratic, exit polling showed.
Turnout among white voters was 47.3 percent, versus blacks at 43.5 percent and Hispanics at 31.2 percent. Whites voted Republican by a margin of 62 to 38 percent, while blacks voted Democratic by 9-to-1, Hispanics by about 2-to-1.
In the 2012 presidential election, the Census Bureau reported, eligible-voter turnout was 61.8 percent. For younger voters, the figure was 41.2 percent -- almost twice as high as in 2010. Turnout by those between the ages of 65 and 74 rose by more than 10 percentage points, to 73.5 percent.
Among whites, 62 percent of those eligible voted. Turnout among black voters was 66 percent, while close to half of eligible Hispanics voted.
White voters will account for almost 80 percent of this year’s midterm electorate, according to Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Washington-based Pew Research Center. And public opinion of Obama’s performance poses the biggest challenge for his party, Kohut says.
When the public isn’t “satisfied with the way things are going for the nation or the way the economy is going, the vote tends to become a referendum on the times,” Kohut said in an interview.
“A good campaign, a good strategy, can help a lot,” Kohut said. “But it’s a matter of how well it deals with the incoming tide and the strength of that tide.”
Obama’s 2012 re-election benefited from voter turnout operations in states such as Virginia, where canvassers made repeated door-to-door visits to his backers. A similar effort helped Democrat Terry McAuliffe win the state’s governorship last November.
Arkansas is not Virginia, though. It’s not a state that Obama carried in 2008 and 2012, as he did Virginia.
Democrats with their intensive organizing efforts “have to go into states this time where they’ve never worked -- Arkansas, Louisiana -- and try to make a difference there,” Duffy said.
In a difficult political environment, Democrats acknowledge, they need to produce a stronger vote than they did in 2010.
“If we don’t do it, we get wiped out,” Representative Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, told Bloomberg editors and reporters in an interview. “If we do it, we get back in charge. It’s just that simple.”