Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hey Nation, Take a Deep Breath

It’s that time every two years or so when all the political talking heads out there do their best to digest and explain what happened in the election.

They list lessons learned and often describe major shifts in the American electorate. As you peruse the web and watch cable news, you’ll find people saying that this election was a repudiation of the president, or that it proves America’s support for a more conservative agenda. You’ll also hear people saying this leaves the Democratic Party in disarray, or that it sets the GOP up nicely for the next presidential race. You might even see some people describe it as a seismic shift to the right by the nation.  

But you don’t have to look too far back to see some of the same people saying the exact same thing about the opposite parties.

After the 2012 election, pundits collectively mourned the death of the GOP. They described that election as a sign of a changing and more diverse American electorate. They said Democrats had unlocked a secret weapon in their use of technology and social media, and that it would take years for the other side to catch up. They said the GOP would have to change dramatically, both in its appeal and its approach, if it hoped to ever win elections again. 

So, did it? Is that what happened?

The simple answer is no.

Here’s the real lesson to be learned from the 2014 elections -- possibly the only lesson: Democrats really suck at voting in off-year elections.

It may sound like an excuse, or even like some political mumbo jumbo. But it’s not. It’s a fact.

Generally speaking, over the past few decades about 60 percent of voting-eligible Americans vote in the typical presidential election. In non-presidential years, that drops to 40 percent.

Voting in presidential years compared to off years.
Just look specifically at a few of the states (these numbers are preliminary).  In New York, where there wasn’t a heck of a lot on the line, the total number of voters this year was 3,509,641. In 2012, that number was 7,135,322. That’s 3.5 million fewer voters in 2014 than in 2012.

You see the same story when you look at the states more heavily involved in the “Battle for the Senate,” which are also typically up for grabs in the race for the White House. In Colorado, approximately 1,886,657 votes were cast in 2014. In 2012, a total 2,571,846 Coloradans voted. In Iowa, where voting is taken quite seriously, some 1,119,914 people cast ballots in 2014. In 2012, Iowa saw 1,589,951, or 81% of active voters.

You can look at every state, with highly contested races or not, and it’s the same story. North Carolina in 2014: 2,717,920 voters; 2012 saw 4,505,372. It goes on and on.

Political pros know about this smaller off-year electorate and know that it’s quite different than the presidential electorate. Simply put, there are a lot of Democrats and Independent democratic-leaners in the vote-only-in-presidential-year population. These are what we in the business call “soft Dems.” They are not soft in their beliefs, just soft in their voting habits.

Why they don’t typically vote in off years, and why they didn’t this time, is a great question. The Democratic Party is the party of the marginalized. Maybe they collectively don’t feel there’s much on the line when the president isn’t on the ballot. This year, maybe they felt the same malaise and frustration with Washington that made so many Republicans vote and, instead of voting, they just stayed home. Anger is a better motivator than frustrated support.

But there's more to it than that. For some reason, when conservatives/GOP supporters are frustrated with government, they are more likely to vote. When liberal/Dem supporters are frustrated with government, they are more likely to disengage. We've seen this in the past few cycles, a frustrated electorate equals major GOP gains. Why? Well, that's a deeper question than can be answered here.

Still, as people out there talk about repudiations of the president and shifts in the electorate, it’s important to remember that, even though these soft Dems didn’t vote this time, they are still out there somewhere. Past behavior tells us, they will likely vote again in 2016.

As the Republicans among us gloat and Democrats mourn, we should all take a collective breath. The Senate has changed hands. That’s true. But it’s still the same America that elected President Obama two years ago, which is the same America that gave Republicans a landslide in 2010 (an off year).   

Two years from now, who the heck knows what will happen. But one thing we know, a lot more people will vote in 2016 than did this year.

Here's other articles you may enjoy: Government Shutdown Edition - A Fox Leading the Hen House, The Father, The Son and President Obama, and First of All, on the 1st Amendment.


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