Political Animal


November 09, 2012 3:20 PM Turnout Disparities and the Democratic Dilemma for 2014

By Ed Kilgore

As Rich Yeselson mentioned in his post earlier today, and as I’ve harped on now and then for several years, the biggest single under-discussed aspect of contemporary national politics is the consistent disparity in turnout patterns between presidential and non-presidential elections, which at the moment happen to align almost perfectly with party preferences.

By that I mean that midterms always, always produce an electorate that is older and whiter than presidential cycles. In 2006, the electorate was 79% white, with African-Americans composing 10% of the electorate and Latinos 8%. In 2010, the numbers were almost identical. In 2006, voters under 30 were 12%, while those over 65 were 19%. In 2010, under-30s were 11%, over-60s were 21%. Meanwhile, in 2008, whites were 74%, African-Americans were 13%, Hispanics were 9%. In 2012 whites were 72%, African-Americans were 13%, Latinos were 10% (Asians, BTW, were up from 2% to 3%). In 2008, under-30s were 18%, and actually increased to 19% in 2012. In 2008, over-65s were 16%, exactly where they were in 2012.

2006 was a great Democratic year mainly because Democrats broke even with Republicans in the over-65 vote, which then proceeded to break 53-45 Republican in 2008, 59-38 in 2010, and 56-44 in 2012 (Democrats also won the 45-64 vote in 2006, before narrowly losing it narrowly in 2008 and a bit less narrowly in 2010). Unless Democrats can do something to change the typical mid-term composition of the electorate, or can boost their percentage among older and whiter voters, 2014 does not look good. And FWIW, not only will the 2010-2012 redistricting continue to protect the GOP’s House majority, the Senate landscape isn’t much better than it was this year (20 Democratic seats are up, compared to just 13 Republicans, and 7 of the Democrats are in states carried by Romney; just one Republican—Susan Collins—is from a state carried by Obama).

On top of everything else, second-term midterms are normally a disaster for the party controlling the White House (look at what happened in 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986, and 2006), though one of the very few exceptions ever was pretty recent, in 1998.

I’m not trying to provide a buzzkill for happy Democrats here, but just as it was inevitable the day after Barack Obama’s election that 2010 was going to be difficult for Democrats given the drift of older white voters towards the GOP, 2014 will be difficult as well. What we don’t exactly know at this point is whether the turnout patterns in 2012 were basically normal presidential patterns, or owed a lot to heroic Democratic GOTV efforts given the voter-discouragement that would have normally accompanied (a) bad economic times, and (b) a reversion-to-norm after the historic 2008 elections.

If it’s the latter, then Democrats had better go to school fast on those GOTV efforts and intensify them going into the midterms, or hope an improving economy or some other change in partisan dynamics give the numbers a tilt back towards the benign-to-Democrats breakdowns of 2006. The best news for Democrats is that Republicans, for all the talk of them “learning lessons” from 2012, do not seem inclined to change much of anything between now and then beyond cosmetics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on November 09, 2012 3:34 PM:

    a lot of "progressives" sat on their butts in 2010 because Obama wasn't moving fast enough on their pet issues to please them. The Tea Party woke them up to the extent that in 2012, it was Obama or Paul Ryan, so Dems turned out. I think they'll finish the job in 2014.

  • Wapiti on November 09, 2012 3:41 PM:

    Obama needs to make the differences between Democrats and Republicans as clear as he can and still govern. I think he needs to strive to stay centrist/center-left. He needs to hold the center, so the Republicans don't encroach there, while getting enough for the center-left, women, and majorities to encourage all to participate in the mid-terms.

  • T2 on November 09, 2012 3:49 PM:

    I'm sure we'll hear more of this, but any chance that the GOP could tap General Petraeus in 2016 is gone.

  • Celui on November 09, 2012 3:55 PM:

    It's not likely that any of the data that Ed cites in this very compelling post can go missing in the next days and weeks of Democratic party discussions. It is, certainly, the GOTV effort that paid off for Obama this past Tuesday, and it remains the key to positive support for Democrats in the coming mid-terms. If party leadership can stay true to this, the potential for wins in the House might be greater than we now think. Conversely, you can bet your bippy that the GOTP crowd has been schooled in the importance of the boots-on-the-ground efforts as compared to the failure of CitUnited funds that got them nowhere. So, here's the lesson: get out the vote, make the candidates' positions and the party's support parts of the ongoing dialog as the mid-terms approach. Lazy get nowhere; let's keep the GOTP crowd on the decline.

  • TCinLA on November 09, 2012 4:17 PM:

    For 50 years, I have been preaching that we have to be at least as committed as The Enemy is and vote Every Time. I finally got my very-smart nephew to tell me this morning that he finally understood, when he saw what his congressional choice was on Tuesday in his suburban Pittsburg district that had "always" been Democratic before. It's why I have said to all my friends that the 2014 campaign starts this week, with a long-term educational campaign to convince Democrats that the reason we're in trouble is not because Republican found all sorts of new voters in 2010, but because Democrats didn't show up!

    Everyone here should take it on as a Sacred Trust to convince every Democrat they know to VOTE in 2014. And then in 2016, and 2018, and 2020, because it's going to take a lot of victories to finally kill off these cockroaches.

  • Rick B on November 09, 2012 4:22 PM:

    While the GOTV concentrated in the swing states did pay off for Obama this week, the Citizen's United money is still looming for 2014. That's in addition to the pattern of Democratic turn-out fall-off. I frankly feel threatened by 2014 already.

    And considering control of the House, has anyone counted the raw votes for Congresspersons in the House by party? How much has the gerrymandering since the 2010 census shifted control of the House?

    One of Texas' new Congressional districts was given to Dallas-Fort Worth (replacing the one that used to be represented by the Democrat Martin Frost which Tom Delay destroyed during his midterm redistricting in the early 2000's.) The available Democratic voters were crammed into the new district, and the nearby Republicans were left with comparatively safe districts.

  • jsjiowa on November 09, 2012 4:25 PM:

    If the House continues in the next two years the way they have in the past two years -- to pass multiple abortion restrictions and move to cut/tranform Medicare and/or Social Security -- they'll please part of their base, but they'll alienate women and seniors. Provided, of course, that adequate messaging is done on those issues. I hope someone is planning to use the OFA contacts for this kind of issue advocacy in advance of the midterms.

  • vickijean on November 09, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Republicans win on the long game. How did Sarah Palin get to be governor? Leadership program the conservatives had to train Christians for local office. School board, mayor, state commissioner, governor. Democrats want to start near the top. Even Obama started as community organizer then state legislator. Dems need to start playing the long game.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on November 09, 2012 5:21 PM:

    Thank you! This is so so so important.

    Contra T2, I think it has less to do with disaffected Dems consciously "sitting on their butts" and more to do with Obama in 2008 mobilizing first-time or infrequent voters (young and/or minority and/or poorer) who frankly don't care to follow the system more than once every four years.

    Also, I can understand that Obama for America's goal was to focus on 2012. But just think how much more effective he could have been without a Republican rout!

    Rather than just talk about this, I'd like to discuss it substantively. If anyone wants to branch off a conversation, feel free to tweet me at @EqualOpCynic.

  • sjw on November 09, 2012 5:28 PM:

    In 2010, the blame lays primarily on the shoulders of Kaine, the lousiest DNC you can imagine, and Obama himself, who appointed Kaine and let himself get boxed in by the Republicans. Howard Dean would have certainly done a better job. Which leads to my next point: the Democrats need to start preparing NOW for 2014. NOW NOW NOW.

  • exlibra on November 09, 2012 5:42 PM:

    Even the Obama campaign, as good as it was, didn't start pushing "in concert" with other campaigns until the last 3-4 weeks, which is a bloody shame and waste of resources, IMO. Come '14, "he needs a Congress he can work with, not one that puts roadblocks in his path" is going to be, probably, one of the best argument we'll have, at least with the minorities. It was not used enough this time around (IMO), though I did start pushing it on my own when about half of the people on my canvas list began saying "Obama? Oh yes! Kaine? Schmookler? I don't know. Does it matter?"

  • Ashbee on November 09, 2012 5:46 PM:

    I can emphatically say I plan on passing this information on to members of my community (black folks) because this is something I have always instinctively knew but I never had the statistics on it.

    My aunt, who a very Obama organizer in Atlanta, was perplexed when I brought this up on election night. She simply didn't know how pervasive GOP biased redistricting was or why mid-term elections always seem to signal a setback for the Democrats. Now we know!

    Thank you and please make this a hallmark issue in the upcoming year!

  • Mitch on November 09, 2012 6:32 PM:

    I would add that the midterm turnout issue has a lot to do with the lack of knowledge among Americans as to how our system actually works. To sum it up: Non-political junkies often underrate the importance of Congress and overrate the importance of the President.

    People don't get that Congress does (or is supposed to do, anyway) most of the messy work of governing. This lack of knowledge is a big part of why so many Americans blame Obama for the slow economic recovery when in truth the GOP in Congress has done nearly everything that they can to interdict all efforts at improving the situation.

    I've said for years that the Dems (and supporters of the Dems) need to make the irresponsibility of the Congressional GOP front and center in every speech, talk, op-ed and interview. Little guys like me can only change so many minds. The corporate MSM sure as hell is not going to point out that the GOP has fought tooth and nail to make Obama fail without concern for what such actions may do to the nation.

    But if the Dems can make this one of the centerpieces of they platform, then people will hear about it—if only because the MSM will harp on the controversy and Repugs will be apoplectic about the "insult" to their character or whatever. Well, I say that the GOP never cares one bit how insulting it's rhetoric is to us (especially to Obama); so why should we care about hurting their damned feelings. Yeah, the GOP has Big Money and the media machine behind them, but that is nothing to fear. After all, it didn't help them very much this cycle, despite Citizens United and the MSM's constant pandering to Romney and the Right.

    Because the truth of the matter is that voting for Congress is just as important as voting for President, and the American people need to learn that.

  • Rick B on November 09, 2012 6:46 PM:

    The Republicans have a group of people who make the elections their careers. Who's paying O'Keef? The Democrats, not so much. It makes a difference. The difference is, I think, the reliability of the funding for such things. Rich guys who want to reshape the nation tend to do it through the Republican Party.

    @Equal Opportunity Cynic
    vickijean is on to something with the long game. As nearly as I can tell, Obama created his own team and had little party structure to build from. Then I think that both the Dems and the Repubs were surprised by how much the Great Recession affected the 2010 election and reshaped the political landscape. The Dems thought they had an election in 2008 that was going to reshape the landscape, but they did not factor in the disaffection caused by the economic collapse. Again, no one but some professional economists seemed to realize how severe - and long lasting - the Great Recession was.

    Where 2008 was a wakeup for the Republicans, 2010 was a wakeup for the Democrats. But Obama classically does not telegraph his punches. My bet/hope is that the Chicago Team has internalized the lessons from both the tea baggers and from Citizen's United. If Obama ever harbored the idea that American politicians worked for the good of the nation rather than feathering their own nest I would hope he has been disabused of that fantasy.

    One more thing. Does anyone have any guesses regarding which Supreme Court Justices just might retire now that Obama has been reelected?

    Obama's reelection protects the Affordable Care Act past the 2014 point where it becomes impossible to repeal. Obama's threat to Boehner to do Lawrence O'Donnel's "Thelma and Louise" act with the fiscal cliff coming in January sets the stage for some real fiscal reform. After that, there is the 2014 election (regaining the House??) Then there are the almost inevitable Supreme Court battles with Citizen's United in the background. Is there anything else predictable?

  • audax minor on November 09, 2012 7:10 PM:

    I realize you've been doing this for a long time, but color me unconvinced. If we throw in 2002, so going back three cycles, it seems to me each non-presidential federal election was somewhat sui generis, with turnout and results more dependent on the issues that emerged over the two preceding years than some long, foreordained demographic cycle. So why should we simply, despairingly, assume that 2014 will faithfully reproduce the political passions of 2010?

  • schtick on November 09, 2012 7:30 PM:

    The people are fed up with the do-nothing Congress and if they remain so, will come out and kick their butts out in 2014. If the teapubs are smart, they are going to compromise with Obama so the dems fall asleep again. And I bet they will.

  • H-Bob on November 09, 2012 7:41 PM:

    Will Obama remember he's a Democrat and bequeath his campaign organization to the Democratic Party since he no longer needs it ?
    It seems more likely that he'll keep his distance from the party since he no longer needs it either !

  • Varecia on November 09, 2012 11:39 PM:

    If this is a real concern, and I think it is, who needs the green light from the Obama organization or the DNC to start right now? Most people here have some kind of experience with grassroots organizing gleaned from volunteering for Obama in 2008 and this cycle. Take it and use it. Start with your own neighborhood. After that, move on to the next neighborhood over. And the next. Keep working and building capacity until you've covered your community. It can be done. YES WE CAN.

  • Varecia on November 10, 2012 12:02 AM:

    And one more thing: someone correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't the databases of registered voters public information accessible to anyone who requests them? If so, there's nothing stopping anyone from getting them for their area a starting to contact voters now.

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