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March 12, 2014 1:48 PM Midterm Falloff By the Numbers

By Ed Kilgore

One thing that the FL-13 special election results should encourage everyone to do is to get very serious about the phenomenon I write about metronomically here: the “midterm falloff problem” for Democrats.

We don’t have exit polls for FL-13, so we can’t figure out exactly who turned out and who didn’t. But the total vote falloff from 2012 was 46%. It was even 21% from 2010, which reminds us that special elections are kind of super-midterms when it comes to participation levels. Given the eternal proclivity of younger and minority voters who now heavily lean D to vote more in presidential than in non-presidential contests, it’s pretty hard to believe that wasn’t the most important reason why Alex Sink ran behind Barack Obama’s 2012 percentages in the district.

Now for a quick refresher course on “midterm fallout” generally, from Tom Schaller at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball back in January of 2013 (note that Tom uses the term “drop-off” rather than “falloff,” but it’s the exact same phenomenon):

In the dozen presidential cycles from 1964 to 2008, turnout shares of the voting-age population ranged from a high of 69.3% (1964) to a low of 54.2% (1996), with an average of 60.2%; in the dozen midterm cycles between 1966 and 2010, turnout averaged 46.2% and ranged between 55.4% (1966) and 41.8% (2010). The average drop-off effect was 14%….
It’s no mystery why Democrats generally perform better in presidential years while Republicans tend to excel in midterm cycles: Lower midterm turnouts tend to skew the electorate toward older, white and/or more affluent voters. Given the growing cleavage in recent decades between partisan preferences of white and non-white voters, cyclic differences in racial composition are particularly important.

So you have two pro-Republican dynamics going on simultaneously in the most recent midterms: different participation rates by groups that are also polarizing in their partisan preferences.

In the last good midterm election for Democrats, 2006, the Donkey Party broke even among voters over 65, who represented 19% of the electorate. Democrats narrowly lost white voters (47-51), who represented 79% of the electorate. Two years later, Obama’s overall solid win masked the fact that Democrats lost over-65 voters by eight points, while their deficit among white voters increased from 4 to 12 points. These demographic categories quite naturally declined as a percentage of the electorate (seniors from 19% to 16%; whites from 79% to 74%).

So the cataclysm of 2010 was largely a matter of Democrats continuing to lose vote share among seniors (a deficit of 21 points) and white voters generally (a 23 point deficit), who again made up a higher proportion of the electorate (seniors: 21%, whites: 77%). In 2012, the Democratic vote share rebounded somewhat among seniors and white voters (12 points and 20 points, respectively), but the more important factor is that their share of the vote declined significantly (old folks and white folks each down 5 points).

I could go on for quite some time with such numbers, but the point is that the two electorates, midterm and presidential, pretty clearly have two “natural” majorities based on vote share and participation rates. And changing that won’t be easy, for either party.

Here’s Schaller’s take on Democratic efforts to change turnout patterns in midterms:

“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.”

So when you read about the efforts of Senate Democrats to make their 2014 campaign all about reducing midterm falloff, your reaction should be (1) bravo for them, because they are attacking the most critical problem, and (2) there’s no easy formula for accomplishing this goal, which is fighting demographic turnout proclivities that are as old as the hills.

Given all that, Democrats losing any special election in a marginal district going into a midterm should be very unsurprising.

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.

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