Sunday, August 7, 2011

Election 2012 vs. Election 2010

For those of you who have never quite recovered from the dismal and embarrassing results of the 2010 election and are now mired in gloom over the unpleasant future that seems inevitable, perhaps there is reason to hope. Andrew Hacker provides a surprisingly upbeat prognosis for the coming election cycle in an article in the New York Review of Books: The Next Election: The Surprising Reality. Hacker provides his own insights and leans heavily on material found in Pendulum Swing, edited by Larry J. Sabato.

Hacker proposes that the 2010 phenomenon can be better understood once the dynamics of the US electorate are understood.

“Citizens who are legally eligible to vote—not convicted felons or newly arrived in a district—tend to fall into three groups. About 40 percent turn out most of the time, although less so for primaries or in odd years. Another 20 percent show up quadrennially, when presidential contests are in the spotlight, but rarely at other times. The final 40 percent, for all practical purposes, never vote.”

Hacker provides this table to illustrate this point.

Mid-term elections tend towards about 40% turnout and presidential elections are in the neighborhood of 60%. Mid-terms are then more easily dominated by the reliable voters and those with a specific gripe.

“Pendulum Swing found that the sharp GOP gains in the House were due to “a drastically lower Democratic turnout.” Surveys show that of those who voted in 2008, Democrats were almost twice as likely not to do so in 2010. So the voters in 2010 had a markedly different profile: they were older, whiter, more ideological on economic and social issues, and more firmly Republican.”

The poor turnout by Democratic-leaning voters is attributed to demographics rather than any disaffection with the president or his Party.

“The reason was more prosaic. An unusually high proportion of his supporters were new voters, notably students and minorities, who were not yet drawn to regular voting. Even if the Democrats were in touch with them, it would have been difficult to get them to vote. Since Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballots, they would have to be shown that it was important to show up, and then find and mark boxes for some Democrats whose names probably meant little or nothing to them.”

One might have also expected greater turnout from the unemployed and others suffering in the economic environment, but those appear to belong mostly to the non-voting 40%. Hacker said these could be mobilized to vote, but it would take a greater effort than is generally expendable in a mid-term election.

Hacker provides some additional cheery perspective. The Republicans have interpreted their gains in the House of Representatives as a mandate from the people.

“The fact is that current House Republicans received 30,799,391 votes, compared with Obama’s 69,498,215 total.”

The extra 20% expected to show up in 2012 is equivalent to about 50 million votes, the majority of which will have supported Obama in 2008, according to Hacker.

The dynamics of the next election are likely to focus on issues more favorable to Democrats. The Republicans will now have an agenda to defend. Suitably framed, that agenda becomes: the best thing to do for the economy is to lower taxes on rich people, and benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and government-supported healthcare will all have to be reduced. Lots of luck with that!

Political activists on the Supreme Court have allowed almost unlimited campaigning by companies and other organizations. The issue of “buying elections” is a concern. Hacker says the results from a study in the Sabato book do not provide a clear picture.

“Michael Cornfield, who has a chapter on money in Pendulum Swing, says he wishes he knew. ‘The multitude of factors that determine electoral victory,’ he writes, ‘make it practically impossible to answer the morally charged question of whether one can buy an election victory’.”

Let’s take that non-answer as encouraging news for the time being. And here is one more little tidbit:

“And while 2010 saw a rout of House Democrats, an electoral fact is that two thirds of the GOP’s winners received less than 55 percent of the votes. Coattails being what they are, most of those gains could be reversed.”

Hacker has relieved some of my anxiety about the coming election, leaving me in a better mood. I look forward to it now with more interest and less dread.

Ezra Klein has also raised an issue that makes the following of the coming politics just ooze with fascinating possibilities. Klein takes note of the fact that corporate interests have generally supported Republican candidates not because they were necessarily in favor of small government, but because they needed a government they could reliably control. The Republicans have always represented their best option. But now it looks like the Republicans are out of their control and actually causing damage to the economy and their business interests. Could this generate a rethinking of priorities?

“Too often, the pressure in Washington is from interest groups and activists and political consultants who are, perhaps without meaning to, pushing towards further dysfunction. Those of us in Washington who would like to see the government work have long wondered when the business community and other entities who need a functioning political system would begin exerting a countervailing force. Perhaps it begins now.”

Let us hope that Klein is on to something. The mere thought is enough to keep political junkies on the edge of their seats all the way through the next election.

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