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Of course, Obama can hope to break that historical “rule,” just as he broke the rule that no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had won re-election with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Historical rules seem to be falling regularly these days. But the demise of swing districts, documented by the Cook Political Report and by Silver, narrows the playing field dramatically.
Democrats are in the unenviable position of needing to win a large percentage of the small number of seats in play, which, in turn, allows the National Republican Congressional Committee to target its resources to defend those relatively few seats.
The president has proved to be a strong fundraiser, and he can surely raise money for the Democratic campaign committees and for individual candidates, if he so chooses. And that cash can help produce TV spots and direct-mail pieces, fund phone banks and help organize and mobilize volunteers. But lack of resources is not why Democrats lost the House in 2010 or why they did not get it back in 2012.
Maybe the biggest thing that Obama could do for his party is boost turnout among Democratic voter groups next year.
Midterm electorates tend to be whiter and older than presidential-year electorates, so turning out an electorate that looks more like 2012 (72 percent white, 19 percent 18- to 29-year-olds) than 2010 (78 percent white, 11 percent 18- to 29-year-olds) would help Democratic prospects.
But since the president will not be on the ballot next year, he will have to prove that his popularity can be transferred to other Democratic candidates or, more generally, to his party.
Of course, all of this assumes that Obama’s popularity will remain intact. He and his party seem to be outwitting the opposition at every turn and on almost every issue right now, but second presidential terms have a way of going downhill, and no one can be sure of the president’s standing 20 months from now.
I’ll be taking a much deeper dive into the DCCC’s recent memo about the fight for the House in the near future. But for now, it’s best to start the cycle by being skeptical that Democrats can add another 17 seats in the House, even if the president makes that a high priority.