To see why, it helps to understand the history of both liberal and conservative populism. Since the Civil War, there have two major left-wing populist movements against economic inequality. The first was the populist movement of the 1890s and the second was the redistributionist movement of the early 1930s, typified by Huey Long's Share the Wealth movement. Both these populist episodes occurred during depressions and at a time when there was no safety net—no Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, or Medicaid—to cushion the blow of massive unemployment. During the 1930s, the middle class felt in danger, historian Alan Brinkley has written, "of being plunged back into what they viewed as an abyss of powerlessness and dependence. It was that fear that made the middle class, even more than those who were truly rootless and indigent, a politically volatile group." The result was a left-wing populism directed mainly against the wealthy and powerful.At The New Republic, Suzy Khimm notes that while Obama has won presidential elections, his party has foundered at every other level.
But after the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the expansion of Social Security, the politics of middle-class fear changed. Protected by government social programs, the middle class didn't have to worry for its sheer survival during economic downturns. Instead, during downturns, some middle-class voters became susceptible to fears that they would have to pay higher taxes in order to aid those below them. As a result, they embraced a right-wing populism that sought to rally the middle class against the lower class (often identified by racial or national origin) and also against the infamous liberal elite, who were deemed to be allies of the lower class. This kind of populist politics flourished during the tax revolt of the late 1970s. And it once again found a receptive audience during the recession that began six years ago.
In earlier periods, left-wing or progressive appeals to reduce economic inequality have even provoked conservative responses within the general voting public. After the 1984 election, in which Democratic candidate Walter Mondale made an appeal to economic fairness central to his campaign, Greenberg ran focus groups in Michigan's Macomb County to discover why these white working-class voters had backed Reagan rather than Mondale. Greenberg found that these voters understood appeals to fairness as appeals to use their tax money for government programs to aid minorities. Outside of very blue areas, today's populist appeals to reduce economic inequality could well be understood in the same manner.
The disconnect between Democratic success nationally and locally is also partly due to the kind of “post-partisan” candidate Obama sought to be in 2008. Obama’s young, racially diverse base flocked to him precisely because he promised to transcend both parties. Out of necessity—at the time, much of the party establishment was firmly committed to Hillary Clinton—Obama circumvented the traditional party infrastructure with volunteers and small donors that were more loyal to him personally than to his party. In places where there was an entrenched Democratic machine, like Philadelphia, the campaign famously refused to hand out “walking around money,” cash payments that go to entrenched operatives and party loyalists in exchange for turning out the vote.
So while Obama may have, to an extent, reinvented campaigning, bringing together a new coalition that delivered the biggest Democratic presidential victory in decades, he didn’t reinvent the Democratic Party. Instead, he created an independent campaign structure that could win elections by driving the strategy, fundraising, and organizing itself. In 2012, he did integrate the state parties into his campaign and directed some of his funds through them. Ultimately, though, it was still Obama in control, not the party.
The Republican National Committee, in contrast, played a central role—much criticized in campaign autopsies—in organizing for both John McCain and Mitt Romney. But what seemed to be a weakness in presidential strategy has turned out to be a strength in the off years. “When a party holds the White House, the opposing party often gets smarter and better about doing things in terms of developing a bench and focusing more on the local level and state level,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and former RNC staffer.
Republicans, meanwhile, haven’t discounted the threat that the new Democratic coalition poses to their long-term political prospects. In Florida and elsewhere, Republicans have increased their share of the white vote, which has given them a particular edge in the midterms when younger and minority voters are more likely to stay at home. But given the shrinking share of white, noncollege educated voters nationally, Republicans will either need to expand their share of the white vote even further or, more probably, win over larger numbers of younger and minority voters to prevail. “Doubling down on white voters does not look like a very promising approach to restoring the White House to GOP control,” Teixeira wrote in a 2013 Sabato’s Crystal Ball article he co-wrote with Alan Abramowitz. Republicans have more of an opportunity in this regard than Democrats might like to believe, as racial categories and self-identification tend to evolve: There’s a long history of immigrant groups becoming assimilated into white America; Hispanics of today could become the Irish- or Italian-Americans of the past, and their political views could shift accordingly. (Judis, meanwhile, recently recanted part of his book by arguing that Republicans could gain a lasting advantage by targeting middle-income voters across racial groups.)