WASHINGTON -- In the days following their party's thrashing in the 2014 elections, Democratic operatives at all levels have been contemplating a frightening question. What if this is not rock bottom?
The electoral landscape was certainly difficult, with high-profile Senate races in Republican-leaning states and the usual dip in turnout that comes in midterm elections, so things should turn around for the better in 2016.
But a favorable year and demographics are only some of the components of electoral success. And there has been a rising sense of concern that the party lacks other critical elements: namely, a message that addresses the top concerns of voters and effective messengers to share it.
"I think politically, we, the Democratic Party writ large, have to do some real analysis about the fact that what many people think is the emerging democratic electorate has now only shown up twice and only shown up for Barack Obama," said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, in an interview a few days after the elections. "What does that mean in a post-Obama era? The technology and the field organization is very important. But organization is a mechanism to harness enthusiasm. And if you don't have enthusiasm, all the organization in the world is not going to get you over the top."
In an effort to find a way out of the conundrum Pfeiffer outlined, the Democratic National Committee has begun a formal review process. With signoff from party leaders in the Senate, House and at the Democratic Governors Association, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she expects to present her results at the committee's winter meeting in February.
"It is not an autopsy," said Wasserman Schultz, by way of affirming the party isn't so broken as to be effectively dead. "This committee will take a deeper look at those types of structural issues. Why are we not able to have the same electorate show up in midterms that shows up to support our presidential candidate? We know they agree with us. They just aren't coming out to vote."
Wasserman Schultz said the review will focus more on structural deficiencies than policy matters since, she argued, Democratic ideas such as raising the minimum wage actually succeeded on Election Day in state and local ballot initiatives.
But Democrats are still skeptical. It's not just because of general bewilderment over the role the DNC plays. ("I can't even tell you what the DNC did during the off-year election other than get out of debt," said one top Democrat.) It's also that the party's midterm deficiencies were supposed to have been addressed by now. In 2010, Democrats suffered heavy losses from white voters who weren't college-educated. As Tom Edsall pointed out in The New York Times, they suffered the same miserable defeat from that group on Nov. 4 this year.
Looking at these data points, it is possible to reach a non-apocalyptic conclusion. The problem the party faces is significant but one that primarily matters just every four years. Come 2016, the coalition that rallies behind Democrats should be there to shepherd the party back into power. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times has pointed out: "The data on turnout and demographics suggests that the growing nonwhite share of the electorate is primarily the result of demographics, not enthusiasm for Mr. Obama."
But what if, as Pfeiffer posits, Obama is the linchpin to getting that coalition to the polls? What if the black community doesn't turn out like it did in 2008 and 2012? What about younger voters, whose support for Democrats has already waned, going from 58 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2014, according to exit polls?
In more than a dozen interviews with party officials in the weeks since the elections, there are no clear answers to those questions. What is clear is that, unlike any previous time in the past six years, a universe of individuals exists who see the president more as a weight on the party's fortunes than its North Star.
One top Senate operative, echoing a widely held belief, argued that candidates themselves ran fairly strong races, albeit with a few (Bruce Braley) creating self-inflicted wounds. By and large, administration missteps -- health care's rollout, the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, and the early stumbles in response to the Ebola outbreak -- produced the toxic climate. Why, after all, did the party come up short in arguably winnable gubernatorial races or end up controlling just 30 state chambers around the country?
Obama officials see things more globally. It was precisely the timidity of downballot candidates to run on the president's accomplishments, they argue, that caused the toxicity.
"I bet an excess of a billion dollars was spent hammering the president over the last year, and zero dollars were spent helping him and zero people were making the argument for the president and because of the electoral map and some strategic decision, he was constrained from defending himself," said an administration official.
But even those sympathetic to the White House say this logic is limited since it only envisions a political system in which Democrats and Republicans are at each other's throats. It doesn't necessarily have to be so dichotomous. For example, after the 2010 elections, when Republicans gained control of the House, "there wasn't a recalibration," one former White House aide said. Ultimately "the president blamed what happened on a communications failure" and largely kept his same strategic mindset.
"The president does own some responsibility for not being able to crack that code [of Republican opposition]," said the aide. "I don't have the answer to do it and not everyone does. But it is kind of his job. If it's anybody's job to exist in that reality and still make progress, it is the president's."
That reality has grown more difficult and the prospects for progress more remote with the GOP takeover of the Senate. In the short term, Democratic officials say, that could play into the party's hands. One easily could imagine a Republican Party assuming the caricature that the opposition would gladly paint: eager to sue, shut down and impeach, but not so much to govern.
"I think that Congress is going to be a negative for Republicans, not a positive for Democrats," said Neera Tanden, president of the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress.
In the long term, however, few see this as sustainable. One top operative who has worked with the party for decades called the losses experienced at the statehouse levels, "absolutely debilitating," since they depleted the Democrats' farm system of candidates and gave Republicans an opening to pass new voting restrictions.
To reverse these trends, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is commencing an internal assessment of what went wrong and what went right during the 2014 cycle (as it does after every cycle). The AFL-CIO labor federation, meanwhile, is doing a general autopsy on economic messaging and holding a national summit on raising wages.
On the national level, the focus so far seems to be dual-tracked. The president has promised or pursued action on priority items for his base: deferring deportations for groups of undocumented citizens and announcing a climate deal with China. He's also trying to sand down the rough edges of opposition and dissatisfaction in Congress. After a public airing of criticism by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's office, staffers for the White House and the majority leader have reached out to each other to calm tensions.
Some in the party want him to go even further, arguing that at least showing good rapport with Republicans would improve the party's standing.
"He should take their veto-bait bills in stride, not overreact to their rhetorical and legislative excesses," said Matt Bennett, co-founder and senior vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. "It is very much in his interest that he be seen as getting the wheels of government moving again. That will help his legacy and the prospects of the next Democratic nominee."
The White House, for its part, sees pathways to passing items such as trade and tax reform -- which run the risk of alienating the party's already downtrodden liberal base -- and criminal justice reform -- which doesn't. Pfeiffer even argued that the 2016 electoral map could serve as a potential leverage point for the administration to push a minimum wage hike.
"It is hard to know if past is prologue with this Congress," he said. "But in the past, Republicans have been willing to do deals on minimum wage to get it off the table because of the political potency of it."
But those pathways are long and the leverage points aren't terribly sharp. And despite some optimistic talk, the legislative balance still favors the gridlocked status quo. Those circumstances favor Republicans, Tanden conceded, since Democrats generally support a productive government. But it isn't necessarily a case for down-the-line ideological compromise.
"I think the essential trap Democrats fell into over the last couple years was to limit their vision based on what could pass the House Republican caucus," she said. "If we are relying on Congress to help define the Democratic Party, then we are in trouble."