One of the more interesting surprises this election was when I was invited to cover State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s visit to Davis. I walked down the street to the Democratic Headquarters and was surprised to find a room of about 16 phone bankers, and on the wall were the number of people they had contacted during the election.
The question I had for Bob Schelen, the Chair of the Yolo County Democratic Central Committee, was one of getting data for the success of those calls. This is a very important question because, for a second straight midterm, voter turnout went way down and the Republicans surged to a resounding victory. He told me they were looking into it.
There are two key questions I have: is voter turnout the engine of campaign results that have very widely swung between 2008 and 2014, depending on whether we are talking about a presidential election or a midterm? And can those results be artificially altered through specific features or campaign work?
The first clue comes from the US News Report telling us what we already know: “Nonvoters are also more racially diverse than the voting population and are less educated. More than 40 percent of likely nonvoters in the 2014 elections identified as Hispanic, black or other racial/ethnic minorities, compared with 22 percent of likely voters. While most voters (72 percent) have completed some college, nonvoters are more likely to have never attended college. “
Therefore, “On average, the populations who are likely to avoid the polls are also the populations likely to vote for a Democrat, which presents a challenge for the Democratic Party.”
As most know, Barack Obama was able to win the presidency in 2008 and 2012 essentially by flipping participation rates and bringing out a more diverse electorate. But he has been either unwilling or unable to do that during the non-presidential years.
In fact, 2014 was actually worse in turnout than 2010 – where 36.6 percent voted in 2014, compared with 40.9 percent in 2010.
What we are seeing are essentially two different electorates – a presidential electorate that will make it very difficult for Republicans to win at the national level, and a congressional and off-year electorate that will make it very difficult for the Democrats to maintain Congress.
In fact, this is not exactly unprecedented. From 1968 until Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Republicans would win mainly resounding electoral landslides for president every year but the post-Watergate 1976 election, and yet when it came to Congress, Democrats controlled both houses of the legislation except for the Senate from 1980 to 1986.
However, that seemed to a be a different phenomenon, as the Democrats held Congress because of the difference between local Democrats in areas that were emerging as Republican strongholds in the South and West. Some Democrats were able to survive as moderates and conservatives, while these same emerging Republican areas would vote against the more liberal national party.
Can we artificially change the fundamentals? That is a big question going forward. The Democrats seemed to achieve success in both 2008 and 2012 by doing exactly that – identifying their core voters, and getting them to the polls.
One way to get people to the polls is for there to be a hotly contested election. But the Pew Research Center, in a study done before the election, notes, “You might think there’d be some relationship between how competitive a given election is and turnout. A race where victory could go either way might spur more interest and rev up get-out-the-vote efforts from both sides; a race where one candidate is a prohibitive favorite could lead many people to conclude there’s no point in heading out to vote.”
However, they write, “our analysis shows little, if any, correlation between a House election’s competitiveness (measured by the winner’s victory margin) and turnout.”
They note: “In the Tea Party year of 2010, for example, overall turnout in House races was 40.7% of estimated eligible voters. That year, the nation’s highest turnout was in Wisconsin’s 5th District, where 62.4% of estimated eligible voters cast ballots and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner cruised to a 42-percentage-point victory. The nation’s tightest race in 2010 was in Illinois’ 8th District, where Republican Joe Walsh edged Democrat Melissa Bean by just 290 votes; 41.7% of estimated eligible voters cast ballots in that contest.”
There is another hypothesis. Perhaps anger and hatred for Barack Obama not only caused Democratic Senate candidates in red states to run away from Obama (and lose), but also Republicans to turn out and Democrats to stay home.
The problem with that theory is that in both 2004 and 2012, presidential elections, the incumbent presidents, George Bush and Barack Obama respectively, were able to win despite a very heavily motivated opposition.
How did they do? They did it by re-writing the electoral maps and getting their voters to the polls in key states.
It is very easy for Democrats to dismiss these results, as Barack Obama was not popular and the Senate landscape was against them. After all, of the 38 states that held some form of Senate election, only 10 were in solid blue states, and it was going to always be tough sledding in a midterm election. However, that doesn’t explain how Democrats would lose governors in solid blue states like Massachusetts, Illinois, Maine and Maryland. Not to mention losing the governor in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, which vote for Democratic presidents, but tend to swing either way more locally.
The one piece of evidence that might indicate that we can alter the fundamentals is Oregon. Oregon has mail-in voting and out of the 2.2 million registered voters in Oregon, 69.5 percent, or 1,519,804, returned ballots. That is a pretty astounding number and Oregon, a solid blue state anyway, elected Democrats across the board.
But Yolo County has a pretty sizable mail-in contingency and, the last we checked, that participation seemed very low.
I’m all for making voting easier. I think the efforts aimed at voter identification requirements and worrying about voter fraud are moving us in the wrong direction, but I do not really see this altering the fundamentals.
As such, I think we will see, for the time being, this surge and decline continue and, unlike in the past, the surge and decline will have strong electoral consequences.
—David M. Greenwald reporting