Before I answer the question of what happened to the Democrats, let me stipulate a couple of things.
First, Kay Hagan came tantalizingly close to winning her re-election campaign for U.S. Senate. Subtract 24,000 votes from Thom Tillis and shift them to Hagan—out of 2.9 million cast—and we'd be talking about Hagan's brilliant strategy. She lost by just 48,000. Other supposedly close Senate races—Iowa, Colorado, Arkansas—didn't turn out to be close at all in a Republican year. Hagan's was.
Second, President Obama's favorable ratings, in the low 40s, aren't that bad for a sixth-year president. He's not as unpopular as Truman, Nixon, Carter and both Bushes were late in their presidencies.
So is Obama to blame for the Democrats' losses?
When an election is as close as Hagan-Tillis, any explanation of why it was lost could be right—or a piece of the puzzle, anyway. When you thought you'd win and you don't, it's even more puzzling.
Early on election night, Wake County Democrats who gathered in the ballroom of the Capital Club in Raleigh were jubilant. The four Democrats running for county commissioners seats were far ahead and would claim victory against Republican incumbents. GOP majority, bye-bye.
Because of Republican gerrymandering, only four of the 16 legislative districts in Wake were competitive. The four went to Republicans in 2012. This time, Democratic challengers were ahead in two, neck-and-neck in the others. Hagan, who led the pre-election polls, was ahead.
Two hours later, Hagan conceded. Of the four legislative races in play, Republicans won three. Cary Democrat Gale Adcock did manage to unseat Rep. Tom Murry, but the other challengers faded. Statewide, Democrats hoped to gain 10 legislative seats. They gained two, leaving the Republicans with veto-proof majorities in both houses.
All this after two years of the most wretched Republican rule that all of us who care about state government could imagine. And a Democratic campaign we'd heard was winning "on the ground, " with armies of staff and volunteers to turn out the voters and throw out the bums.
But the bums won.
As Will Rogers once said, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."
In that spirit, Democrats soon pointed fingers but not at their lack of organization. Some blamed Hagan for failing to stand with Obama. She, like the other endangered Senate Democrats, didn't campaign with him. If she had, perhaps Obama would've pumped up the Democratic turnout, generating the votes she needed to win. Others from the moderate wing, blamed Obama, saying his negative attributes dragged Hagan down.
But step back from the pieces and the puzzle becomes clear. Nationally, just 37 percent of eligible adults registered and voted—the lowest figure since 1942, during World War II.
In North Carolina, official turnout was 44 percent, which is awful. But that's of registered voters: Our turnout of eligible adults—registered and unregistered—was 38 percent.
In short, too many Americans—and too many in North Carolina—saw no reason to vote. Why? Because the Democrats didn't offer a clear, compelling and progressive message about creating jobs, improving wages and building the economy. So vast numbers of potential Democrats stayed home.
Consider that the essential Republican message is, we don't spend "your money" on "those people." That's it. That's all the Tillis crowd has to say. But it was enough to persuade a majority of the voters—the ones who, when they hear "your money," count themselves in—as long as few voters show up.
The Democrats' challenge, on the other hand, is to convince enough voters and potential voters that if government helps those in need, the economy will expand and almost everyone will be better off.
It's a more complicated message to deliver, but the bigger problem is that the potential voters to whom the Democrats must bring it—or else they'll be non-voters —are less educated, have lower incomes and may struggle to get by, so they're not tuned into politics.
I'll add two other facts. The best study I've seen of non-voters, done two years ago by the Pew Research Center, found that if this constituency did vote, it would skew Democratic 2-to-1. And these were the non-voters of 2012, when turnout exceeded 60 percent and the additional voters re-elected Obama.
There's no shortage of potential Democrats, but they're hard to reach, especially if your message is muddy and your candidates bland. That was Hagan in a nutshell, but I blame Obama too. What was his economic message in 2014? What's he fighting for?
If Obama had come out swinging on jobs, wealth inequality, renewable energy—or anything, really—maybe Hagan could've grabbed onto his coattails. But he didn't. And she judged that his presence in North Carolina would cost her more than it would gain.
Thus the Hagan campaign, with help from the political arms of the N.C. Association of Educators, Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters, attacked Tillis for cutting school aid, threatening women's reproductive rights and undermining environmental laws.
It was almost enough. But these single-issue attacks didn't add up to a message that inspired enough voters, so Hagan and the Democrats in North Carolina fell short.
The last fact: The Democrats lost young voters. Two years ago, 19 percent of the electorate was under age 30; voters 18–29 strongly backed the Democrats. This year, they still backed the Democrats, according to exit polls, but they were just 13 percent of the electorate, 12 percent in North Carolina.
For a party trying to return to power, that's the saddest fact of all. It's one thing to lose with a message that you can build on the next time. It's another to just lose.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A failure to inspire."