Political Animal


January 10, 2013 3:23 PM More on Democrats’ Mid-Term “Fall-off” Problem

By Ed Kilgore

As regular readers know, I rant regularly about the well-known but often ignored problem of the “two electorates”—one large and relatively diverse that votes in presidential years, one significantly smaller, older and whiter that votes in midterms. Because the two electorates are suddenly very closely aligned with the two parties’ voting coalitions, it’s a bigger deal than ever, and a big problem for Democratic in 2014 that cannot be blithely outsourced to GOTV “nerds” who will magically change the historic patterns.

My friend the political scientist Tom Schaller, bless his empirically trained heart, has done a post for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball that makes the case better than I have: with charts showing the history of the midterm “fall-off,” and with a discussion of the practical limits of GOTV in solving the problem. Anyone who cares about elections should read the whole thing, but here are two key graphs:

“There is little to nothing Democrats can do to mitigate the drop-off of turnout among their core constituencies that regularly happens — like a clock — when moving from presidential to midterm elections. Indeed, the primary way to stimulate midterm voters who do vote to support Democrats will not be present in 2014: a poorly performing Republican president that Democrats can rally against (e.g., Bush 2006 or Nixon 1974),” George Mason University’s Michael McDonald, one of the nation’s foremost experts on electoral turnout, explained to me via email. “The first step for Democrats is to prevent 2014 from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy by recruiting quality candidates to run.” McDonald says Democrats will have to look to new strategies, including social media applications. “But, I caution that social media will likely not solve the Democrats’ problems since it failed to prevent the historic Republican landslide in 2010.”
I then asked Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, a critically-acclaimed book about the rising sophistication of electoral field campaign strategies and techniques, how Democrats, who presently enjoy a field mobilization advantage, might “presidentialize” midterm elections. “In the last decade, Democrats have gotten much better at using field experiments to understand the mechanics of mobilization and data to target their efforts to parts of the electorate where they can have the greatest impact. There is a persistent difference between midterm and presidential elections, though: activist engagement, especially among the volunteers who do the work of mobilization,” Issenberg said. “So we may be missing a step here. The primary challenge for Democrats may not be how to mobilize blacks and Hispanics to vote in off-year elections the way they do in presidential cycles, but how to motivate them to volunteer at those levels — because it’s that activity that we know will turn their neighbors out to vote.”

Very interesting. There is actually one other important thing Democrats could theoretically do to mitigate the impact of the midterm “fall-off”: improve their performance among older white voters. They carried 47% of over-60 white voters, and 48% of 45-59 year-old white voters, as recently as 2006 (Obama won 39% of over-60 whites, and 38% of 45-59 whites, in 2012). But given the generational resource wars and re-emergence of cultural divides, that might be a reach.

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.


  • BillFromPA on January 10, 2013 3:36 PM:

    Totally off the top of my head here, how about ballot initiatives? You know, those things the repugs used to rally their troops to the polls? The threat of gay marriage used to work great for them in this regard, thankfully it seems to be a net loser for them now. How about getting on the ballot a vote on whether a given state has to throw in with Obama Care? Those opposed will vote anyway if this analysis is to be believed, let's get some issues that matter to our side on the ballot and see if that works. Seem to me it can't do any harm.

  • c u n d gulag on January 10, 2013 3:50 PM:

    I think more minority involvement in helping candidates out, will be an effective strategy.

    But so will good Democratic candidates. Ones who don't run Red Dog (I call 'em that, 'cause thar ain't nothin' Blue 'bout 'em!) campaigns.

    People who lean Conservative don't vote for Republican Lite.
    If they're going to vote that way, they'll vote for the incumbent Republican. The REAL one.

    2014 may provide a different environment than 2014. Republicans won't be running against ACA, since it will have already been implemented, so that may change things.
    Sure, some Conservatard Governors and State Legislatures may do their damnest to prevent it from being implemented in their states, but there are more ways for poeple to talk to one another than there were even a decade ago.
    Zeb and his family in LA, may talk to his brother Zeke and his family in a state that has ACA, hear how it's helping them out, and not be as reflexive in his vote - or, may decide to sit 2014 out, to see what happens.

    A lot can change between now and 2014.
    And, thankfully, the Republicans in both houses of Congress, are their own worst enemies a lot of times - and from the looks of things, things aren't going to change much in the next two years.

    I'm cautiously optimistic - which is not something that's really in my character at all.
    Or, at least, not much...

  • T2 on January 10, 2013 4:08 PM:

    aren't we leaving out a major problem for GOP among their old, white base? Those folks are on Medicare and Social Security. Once they get a whiff of cuts to their benefits, thanks to guys like Paul Ryan, they may not be so automatic at the polls. It's up to the Democrats to make sure GOP plans to cut those vital programs are well publicized.
    You see, the old,white GOPers are all gung ho to cut benefits to colored folk and the poor......but when their own checks shrink - they don't like that a bit.

  • Th on January 10, 2013 4:08 PM:

    Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Be loud and proud about support for them and hang any attempts at cuts firmly on the Republicans. Part of that means telling Obama you will not only not support him on cuts but you are going to make a big deal of your non-support.

  • Aaron Morrow on January 10, 2013 4:24 PM:

    Clearly, we should replicate the magical outlier year of 1998, when Democrats lost no Senate seats and gained five House seats during Bill Clinton's second mid-term (pardon the phrasing).

    According to the data linked in that post, 1998 was one of the best GOTV efforts for Hispanics, and the second best for blacks. (See http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/historical/index.html )

    I would love to know the inside story of why and how 1998 was such a successful turnout year for Democrats. Give us your opinion, Ed Kilgore!

  • Peter C on January 10, 2013 4:27 PM:

    I think Democrats do well in presidential elections because every four years, we act like a national party. We fail in off-year elections because we act like a collection of localities.

    We need to act like a national party in the off years. We need to have a platform which spells out our ideology. We need to have a convention which sells the advantages of our platform and introduces our candidates to the nation.

    There is no reason that political conventions need to only occur every 4 years. Perhaps if we held them every two years, wed perform better.

    I know that the dominant paradigm says that political conventions happen only every 4 years, but often, if you want to win where you are used to losing, YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THE PARADIGM!

  • Doug on January 10, 2013 4:58 PM:

    There's nothing Democrats can do about poor mid-term showings?
    Really? Because we won't have Bush II to run against, we can't have turn-out close to a Presidential election year? Doesn't McDonald realize EVERY election, Presidential or mid-term, candidates are running against SOMETHING, even Democrats. Not to mention the pesky little fact that Republican voter numbers ALSO drop off during mid-terms.
    It's all in the way the campaign is approached. Just as Peter C posted, the major problem for Democrats is that we tend to view off-year elections as LOCAL affairs when, in actuality, they're just as important as Presidential and should receive close to the same attention by groups such as the DNC, DCCC, DSC and OfA.
    Based on what's going on today, 2014 should be about protecting SS by raising the cap, continuing to protect Medicare by allowing it to negotiate drug prices and how best to reduce military spending without causing economic hardship to those workers involved; the CEOs can take care of themselves, they have enough money already.
    Now, was THAT hard?

  • rrk1 on January 10, 2013 6:48 PM:

    Seems to me Howard Dean as chair of the Democrats had a 50 state strategy that had good results. That's one feature the Democrats need in 2014: a unified, widespread, approach. And they shouldn't concede even the reddest most gerrymandered district because if the Rethug establishment permits more primary fights between crazies and the so-called moderates, fatigue with the obstructionist, absolutist, approach the Teahadists continue to take might very well set in. In which case the Rethugs will do the Democrats a favor, much to be wished for.

    The evil genius of Karl Rove, which turned so many state legislatures and governorships into red territory before redistricting has saddled us with a difficult, but not insurmountable, challenge. The crazier the candidates they run, the more likely they are to lose, as happened in 2010 and 2012. Obama could, of course, help by taking a consistent populist stance, and not letting the corporate media do its usual and tiresome false-equivalence, but then Obama will continue to be Obama, and that's not encouraging.

    The Rethugs have to be tagged with the paralysis of Congress. So far they have obviously learned nothing from the November elections, and that in the end is good for the Democrats, if not the country.