It’s all about the turnout


During the last week of the US midterm elections, I visited a number of groups involved in election campaigning, and it was striking how election campaigning is shaped by the voluntary voting system. I previously was aware of this, and expected to see some campaign resources dedicated to ensuring your own loyal voters turn up and vote, but it turns out that this task takes over the entire campaign, particularly in the final days.

From local Republican and Democratic parties, state campaigns, local labour unions and national campaign committees, their task in the final week almost entirely consisted of contacting voters who their records showed were loyal to their party, but had inconsistent voting records. This involved phone calls (after participating in some of these in the last hour of voting, a number of voters told me that they had received over a dozen phone calls reminding them to vote), as well as checking polling booth lists and visiting people’s houses.

I’m sure that other election campaigns aren’t so obsessively focused on turning out your base. It appears that the Obama campaign in 2008 focused much more on independent swinging voters and reaching new voters. 2010, on the other hand, was all about the enthusiasm gap.

Voter turnout fell from around 63% in 2008 to 42% in 2010, which is fairly typical for a turnout decline from a presidential election into a midterm election. This decline didn’t happen across the board, it particularly hit amongst Democratic voter groups.

CNN’s exit polls from 2008 and 2010 lay out this change in the composition of the electorate. The proportion of voters under the age of 30 declined from 18% to 11%, while voters over 65 increased from 16% to 23%. African-American voters declined from 13% to 10%. The number of voters classifying themselves as ‘conservative’ increased from 34% to 41%.

You can also see that Democratic voters didn’t turn out by examining the ‘enthusiasm gap’. As campaigns move into their final stages, pollsters begin to produce polling figures for both “registered voters” and “likely voters”. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight used polling averages to estimate this gap at 6%. Many pollsters produced polls on generic ballot (how voters would vote) and on approval of the performance of the Congress showing that the Democrats had a slight lead amongst registered voters, but this was wiped out by the likely voter polls.

Exit polls also asked voters how they voted at the 2008 presidential election, and can be used to compare the make-up of the electorate in 2010 compared to 2008. While Obama defeated John McCain by a 7% margin in 2008, voters in 2010 voted 45% each for Obama and McCain, suggesting that the turnout decline is concentrated amongst Obama voters.

Silver has also found that this enthusiasm gap is particularly large in Presidential swing states. This suggests that the Democrats have suffered from the loss of the massive turnout operation created by the Obama campaign in 2008, which was entirely focused on swing states.

Since the election, most of the media analysis has criticised the Democratic congress and President Obama for going too far too fast. Indeed, Obama has expressed regret, and spoken of seeking further compromise with the Republicans, despite his repeated attempts in the last two years being continually spurned, and the explicit statements by Republican leaders that they do not plan to compromise with the Obama administration over the next two years.

The numbers suggest that the Democrats lost the House because they moved too fast, but that they moved too slow. A substantial part of the liberal base of the Democratic Party stayed home. It’s certainly true that the healthcare bill and stimulus has motivated conservatives and probably brought some out to vote who weren’t excited by John McCain in 2008. This wouldn’t have been enough to destroy the Democratic majority if Obama’s liberal base had turned out to vote.

Rather than focusing on the House, which under Nancy Pelosi was rather effective at passing legislation, the Democrats should look at the Senate. Senate Democrats proved entirely incapable of pushing through important legislation, while President Obama and senior Democratic Senators continued to obsess over bringing the Republican Party along for the ride despite the party making it clear that they had no interest in working with Obama on his legislative agenda.

It seems bizarre that conservative Democrats are gunning for Pelosi while Senate leader Harry Reid is safe in his position. While the Democrats maintained control of the Senate, this is solely due to the large Democratic  gains made in 2006 and 2008. When you compare the proportion of Senate seats up for election in 2010, the Democrats suffered just as bad in the Senate as in the House.

If the Democrats want to retain the White House and Senate and possibly win back the House in 2012, they need to do two things: give liberal Democrats a reason to vote, and replicate the massive turnout operation created by the Obama campaign in 2008. It appears now that, if Obama can take on the Republican majority in the House and motivate his lost voter base, he will stand a good chance of winning re-election in 2012.

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  1. The “turnout gap” is only half the story, though. The other half is that the Independents who broke for Obama in 2008 swung heavily back behind Republicans in 2010 (at least in the polling breakdowns I’ve seen). If your argument about Obama being too centrist was right, we’d have seen the turnout gap, but not the Independents swinging back to the GOP.

  2. Arguably there is in fact a clear linkage between the two. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues that there is no real political ‘centre’, and that ‘centrists’ are merely people who use different moral systems at different times. He argues that such ‘bi-conceptuals’ are won over by whichever side most effectively activates their moral system within those voters.

    In 2006 and 2008 Democrats ran campaigns which invoked progressive values, and in those elections independents broke for them. In 2010 however Democrats did not do this, whilst Republicans campaigns were built around conservative morality.

    This article written by Lakoff in September is worth a read:

  3. Isn’t it possible that people came out to vote for Obama, not because he represented a liberal agenda, but purely because they a) got caught up in the wave of hope and the historical event that was the 2008 Obama campaign; and b) voters tapped into Obama’s charisma and not the substance of his liberal message. Then reality has shown that he is a normal politician, coupled with an insidious campaign against him, that destroyed the “Obama Aura”.

    This may seem cynical but we’re talking about only a 6-10% turnout gap. That sounds about spot on/believable for the amount of people who would’ve voted purely on Obama’s charisma/aura/historical event and not listened to the actual message.

    If this is true then I disagree with your recommendations to the Democrats on how to win the Presidential election in 2012. I honestly don’t think moving to the centre on policy will achieve much either. Obama needs to reclaim the voter gap by restoring the “Obama Aura” and move above political ideologies. How he can achieve that after his rough term in office I have no idea.

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