I’ve tried to avoid election post-mortems. But I’m a political junkie so my efforts to bury the recent past were futile. The problem with most of them is that they haven’t focused on the big problem for Democrats: the T word. No, not teawads but TURNOUT.
The national turnout was 36.3%, which is beyond pitiful. It’s woeful and many other words ending in ful. It’s also becoming a chronic problem in off-year elections since Republicans tend to vote in every election. That means that Congress, state leges, and Governors are all more conservative than the general public. That’s the main reason for election results like 2010 and 2014.
I’m not saying anything startlingly original, but the T word is much less cited by the political punditocracy than other factors. Why? It’s undramatic and lacks the va-va-voom of blaming the President or poor “messaging.” Every time I hear that dread word, I think of Hollywood movie mogul, Sam Goldwyn nee Goldfish, who once said: “If you want a message, call Western Union.” Goldwyn, was, of course, referring to “message pictures,” but I love obscure historical references so what can I tell ya?Ironically, Goldwyn produced the best movie about post-WW II veterans, The Best Years of our Lives.
Now that I’ve established that I watch too much TCM, back to the matter at hand: poor turnout. I’m not sure how to change this. Off-year elections lack the drama and sweep of a Presidential election even though the process is similar: we elect the Oval Ones on a state by state basis via the dread electoral college. The whole Dems vote less in off-year elections thing is a recent development as Jamelle Bouie pointed out in a great piece at Slate:
Midterms have always been bad for the president’s party, but rarely were they wave elections—or near waves—of the kind we saw this year and in 2010. Instead, they were modest shifts in one direction or the other. In 1986, running at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term, Democrats won a net five seats in the House of Representatives andeight in the Senate. In 1990, running against President George H. W. Bush, Democrats won a net seven seats in the House and one in the Senate. In other words, until very recently, Democrats didn’t always fare poorly in midterm elections.
The generational divide in partisanship, for instance, didn’t exist 25 years ago, or at least, not in the same way. Take the 1988 electorate that chose Bush for president. There, Michael Dukakis won roughly the same share of seniors (49 percent) as he did voters younger than 30 (47 percent). Four years later, Bill Clinton won 43.5 percent of voters younger than 30 and 50 percent of voters 65 and older. If there was a generation gap, in other words, it was that older voters favored Democrats, not Republicans.
But why is there a GOP midterm advantage now as opposed to 20 years ago, when the overall electorate was substantially whiter? The answer is demographics. First, as Ronald Brownstein has argued for the Atlantic, differences between white and nonwhite voters weren’t as severe as they are now. In congressional and presidential elections, Democratic candidates performed well with minorities and decently with whites, giving them a cushion in midterm contests—yes, the electorates were older, but they weren’t as Republican.
This is important. In the 1990s, a substantial number of older voters—if not most older voters—belonged to the Greatest Generation, the men and women who grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II. They were New Deal Democrats in their formative years, and they kept that affiliation through the rest of the 20th century.
Those political ties were evident in how they voted over time. According to a massive survey on the “generation gap” by the Pew Research Center, voters who turned 18 when Franklin Roosevelt was president were 8 points more Democratic than the average voter in 1994, 1996, and 1998; 11 points more Democratic in 2000; 3 points more Democratic in 2002; and 14 points more Democratic in 2004. By contrast, the next oldest cohort of voters—those who “came of age” during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—were substantially more Republican in most years.
Sorry for the epic quote but this is the single best analysis of the off-year election blues that I’ve read. Props to Jamelle for using history well and wisely. He isn’t able to provide a solution to the problem but he explains why it’s happening. Well done, sir.
Where do we go from here? Democrats need to stop being swayed by momentary fluctuations in approval polls. Except in the South, President Obama’s poll ratings are mediocre, not terrible. He’s never gotten as low in the polls as Truman, Nixon, Carter, or Bush the lesser. Running away from the President was a futile gesture that fooled nobody. There was no rational reason for the President to stay away from states that he carried in 2008 or 2012. I really think he could have energized the base in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Colorado. The DNC and DSCC are still singing from the 1990’s Clintonian hymnbook: triangulate, obfuscate, and woo independent voters. Team Obama successfully ran a base election in 2012 and it should be the model for off-years in the future. Remember, the GOP won a wave victory in 1994 when the Clinton model was at its apogee. That’s my new favorite word, I plan to use va-va-voom more as well even if Nicki Minaj beat me to the punch.
I don’t think Democrats need to move farther right or left, I think they need to stick to their guns and not blow with the slightest breeze. This year’s wind didn’t not have to result in a gale force result; our focus should have been on getting 15-20% more voters to the polls. You don’t accomplish that by hiding in plain sight. Haven’t these strategists ever played sardines or hide-and-seek for chrissake? I guess they’re too busy chatting on the Tweeter Tube to focus on the T word. Turnout your base and you will do well; playing duck and cover has never won an election and never will.