Doctor to patient: "Have you had this problem before?"
Doctor: "Well, you got it again."
The Democratic Party is facing the same problem it faced in the last midterm election. In 2010, Democrats lost six Senate seats, 63 House seats and the party's majority in the House of Representatives. That was because, in 2010, the Democratic Party lost its populist base. It seems to be happening again now.
Look at President Obama's job approval rating broken down by level of education in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. The President gets his highest level of support from voters with post-graduate degrees (58% approval). Then it goes down to 44% among college graduates, 40% among voters with "some college" and just 35% among voters who didn't go beyond high school.
That is not supposed to happen. Democrats are supposed to be "the party of the people," with the party's strongest support coming from the most disadvantaged. Minorities and immigrants tend, on average, to be more disadvantaged. Yet Obama's support is weakest among Americans who never went to college.
What's true for Obama is also true for his party. Favorability toward the two parties is about equal until you get to the highest level of education. Among people with post-graduate degrees, Democrats have a much more positive image (55% favorable to the Democratic Party, only 25% favorable to the Republican Party).
Historically, in the last 12 congressional elections, Democrats have done best among the least well-educated. This year, the CNN and ABC-Post polls show Democrats doing 8 to 10 points better among college graduates than among non-college voters.
A lot of people think the Democrats' big problem is race. But Obama himself got elected twice. The bigger problem for Democrats may be class. American political culture is no longer as racist as it used to be. But the U.S. is still a deeply populist country, suspicious and resentful of elitists. And President Obama embodies educational elitism, going all the way back to his disparaging statement during the 2008 campaign about small-town people who "cling to guns or religion."
A former Bush administration official told The Financial Times, "You have this perception of the president as the professor-in-chief. The idea that Obama moves slowly, he tends to be passive, he holds the seminar and gets everyone's opinion." George W. Bush he ain't. That's why we elected him.
Nearly every Democratic presidential contest in recent decades has come down to a choice between a progressive and a populist. Adlai Stevenson versus Estes Kefauver in the 1950s. Eugene McCarthy versus Robert Kennedy in 1968. George McGovern versus Hubert Humphrey in 1972. Gary Hart versus Walter Mondale in 1984. Michael Dukakis versus Richard Gephardt in 1988. Paul Tsongas versus Bill Clinton in 1992. Bill Bradley versus Al Gore in 2000. Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton in 2008.
The difference? Social class. Progressives like Stevenson, McCarthy, McGovern, Hart, Dukakis, Tsongas, Bradley and Obama appealed to upscale Democrats -- highly educated, upper middle class, Prius-driving liberals. Populists like Kefauver, RFK, Humphrey, Mondale, Gephardt, Gore and both Clintons appealed to working class Democrats who look to government for protection from economic adversity. Single working women. Racial minorities. Wage-earners. In 2008, white non-college Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama 2-to-1 in Kentucky and West Virginia.
If Democrats can't deliver a good economy, the party loses its populist base. As it did in 1980 under Jimmy Carter. When the Democrats lose populists, what's left is a liberal party: the party of Nancy Pelosi. And Barack Obama.
Some Democratic candidates this year are scoring points by criticizing their Republican opponents as out-of-touch economic elitists. Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois are attacking their Republican opponents for shutting down companies and outsourcing jobs. It's the same campaign President Obama used to defeat Mitt Romney in 2012.
Obama and Romney were both elitists, but they represented different elites. Romney was the elite of wealth. Obama was the elite of education. They are bitterly competitive elites: wealth (Republican) versus education (Democratic). Democrats regain their populist support when they can depict their opponents as more elitist than they are. This year, Obama doesn't have a Mitt Romney to kick around. So the election has become a referendum on Obama.
There's a pattern here. In the 1994 midterm, Democrats lost their populist base mostly because of a social issue backlash over guns and gays. In 1996, when the economy was rapidly recovering, Bill Clinton got it back.
In the 2010 midterm, Democrats lost their populist base as the economic recovery stalled. In 2012, they got it back by running against "Mr. 1%." Romney aided in the effort by disdaining Obama supporters as the "47%" who depend on government assistance.
In the end, 2014 may mean the same thing for 2016 as 1994 did for 1996 and 2010 did for 2012: nothing at all.