MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
After every decisive election, the losers have to answer the question what just happened to us? Democrats will be doing that for the next several months as they lick their wounds and get ready for 2016.
Here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Democrats knew this would be a tough election, but even if they lost red states they had hoped to hang on in states that President Obama won before, places like Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina and they were counting on their vaunted field operation to help them hang on, but it didn't.
GUY CECIL: This was not a turnout election in the sense that another door knock would've mattered or another half-million would've mattered. It was a wave election.
LIASSON: That's Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A good ground game can make up one or two points in an otherwise close race, but this late-breaking Republican wave meant many Democrats lost in races that weren't close at all.
CECIL: When you lose the governors' race in Maryland by 10 points - one of the blueist states in the country - it reveals that there's something larger going on than simply whether your technology was good or whether you knocked 10.2 million doors or 10.3 million doors.
LIASSON: And what was that larger thing going on? Democrats are sifting through the rubble of Tuesday night for answers. One conclusion, says strategist Geoff Garin, is that even the best ground game only works in service to a powerful message.
GEOFF GARIN: A lot of those efforts to get out the vote were based on the tactics of voting to get people to vote, but at the end of the day, what's really important is giving people a reason to vote and making them feel like it really makes a difference in their lives and we probably fell short in that regard.
LIASSON: Exit polls showed the economy was the number one issue, but says former Obama White House aide Stephanie Cutter, the Democrats' economic message was muted.
STEPHANIE CUTTER: I don't think that voters heard exactly the critical things that we've done over the last six years - creating millions of jobs, cutting the deficit in half, the graduation rate is up. I think as a party, across the board Democrats could've been talking about those things in a much bolder way.
LIASSON: But that's not an easy argument for Democrats to make. The economy is doing much better but people don't feel it. The average family's income hasn't gone up since 1999. Not all the Democrats fault, of course, but still a heavy anchor on the party that's supposed to represent the middle class. In the exit polls, 63 percent of people who voted said the economic system favors the wealthy; a Democratic message if there ever was one, but one-third of those people voted Republican. Geoff Garin points out that voters also supported, by large majorities, Democratic positions on the environment, immigration and the economy.
GARIN: The election was a national referendum on President Obama's stewardship of the economy and not participating in that discussion was costly and states where Democrats lost badly in Senate elections, voters were voting overwhelmingly to pass increases in the minimum wage. For example, policies that Democrats advocate for and Republicans tend to oppose.
LIASSON: Beyond that, it's not so easy to draw clear lessons from a small group of races because the data is mixed. In three of the five purple states Democrats had hoped to hold, strong Democratic candidates did run good campaigns, but the results were different. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen won. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan lost narrowly and in Virginia, Mark Warner had a near-death experience. In the two other presidential battleground states, Iowa and Colorado, the Democratic candidates made mistakes in a year where Democrats had no margin for error. Democrats generally shunned the president this year, but in some states it's possible a presidential visit might've increased core Democratic turnout.
CUTTER: It's also an argument if the president was sent in to some of these purple states to rally the Obama coalition that it could've provided a percentage point or two in the electorate.
LIASSON: After the Republicans lost Senate seats they should have won in 2010 and 2012, they knew what they needed to do - stop nominating Tea Party candidates and insulting women, but for Democrats it's not so clear and for President Obama, this does not appear to be the time for introspection.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BARACK OBAMA: Obviously Republicans had a good night and they deserve credit for running good campaigns. Beyond that, I'll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday's results.
LIASSON: And Democrats will be picking through them too as they get ready for the next election two years from now, hoping to do a lot better.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.