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What if we gave an election and nobody came?

REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Well, literally not nobody came. Instead, as Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of life is just showing up, and that is what the Republicans did on Tuesday when they routed to a major sweep across the country. 

schultz portrait
David Schultz

First, consider that nationally only 33.3 percent of the voters showed up. This compares to 41 percent in 2010, and it is by far the lowest turnout going back to the early 1980s. Two-thirds of Americans stayed home, including young voters and people of color. These are core Democrat voters critical to President Barack Obama’s coalition, yet they had better things to do than vote.

Even in Minnesota, a state priding itself on the highest voter turnout in the nation, only 50.2 percent of the voters showed up, down from 55 percent in 2010, and 60 percent in 2006. Despite all the money and resources spent by the national Democrats and the DFL on GOTV, their base did not turn out. One might speculate what would have happened if they did. Perhaps the national GOP blowout would not have occurred and many of the close races would have tipped the other way. Perhaps the Minnesota House of Representatives would not have flipped with the loss of 11 DFL seats. Who knows, the results might have been different.

Can’t blame voting laws here

It would be too easy to blame the low turnout on restrictive voting laws.  Maybe in some states that was an issue, but it does not explain places like Minnesota. Moreover, there were some states, such as Wisconsin, which actually had higher turnout than four years ago. No, the laws were not the sources of voter discontent. What was?

The first was that there was no constructive defining narrative in 2014.  Republicans ran against Obama, and Democrats away from him. Republicans told us what they would not do. Democrats failed to explain what they did and why they deserve two more years. This was a repeat of the dueling non-narratives of 2010. Republicans had enough of a message to get their base out; Democrats did not. Democrats had a failure of nerve, a failure to articulate why they had made the lives of many people better. They can point to many successes, but they also failed. Obama really has failed on many scores.  

Yes, Republicans did scuttle many of his efforts, but the president never pushed far and bold enough. Too small a stimulus, too meek health-care reform, waiting too late to tackle the environment, money in politics, or serious education reform. He gives a good speech, but the reforms he pushed were never grand enough to make the types of differences that needed to be made. We all hoped Obama would be a transformative president; he turned out barely to be a transactional one. Thus, in part the reason Democrats stayed home was a combination of disillusionment, disappointment, and simply a failure of the president move the country in a direction far enough for people to see a major difference in their lives now or in the future.

Shrinkage of presidency accelerated

Going forward, what does all this mean? The election results did little to change national politics. For the last two, if not four, years power has been gridlocked in Washington, and that is certainly not going to change with the new Congress. Obama was already a lame duck before the election, and he was  destined to lose influence no matter what the results. Tuesday’s returns simply accelerate the shrinkage of his presidency.

The last four years have been marked by repeated but failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, inaction on immigration and global warming, short-term stopgap budget issues, and stalemates on minimum wage and a host of other issues. Don’t expect to see that change in the next two years. New congressional majorities do not necessarily mean that the House and Senate will act more responsibly and that its leadership and Obama will reach agreement by necessity. What needs to be understood is that there is a basic philosophical difference over the role of government here, with little electoral incentive to compromise. This is the core to understanding of the 2014 elections.

The Pew Research Center has argued correctly that what has emerged in American politics is a two-track election cycle. We have a presidential election cycle marked by turnouts in the mid 50s where women, the young, and people of color turn out, or at least vote in percentages greater than in midterm elections. These are presidential election years, which favor Democrats, in theory. But the midterm elections produce significantly lower turnouts, with older, whiter and more male electorates. In each of these election cycles a different mixture of congressional, state and local seats are up for election too. The result is that different electorates create contrasting majorities and results. Effectively we have dual-majorities rule in the United States, each checking the other — with right now the midterm majorities driving American politics.

Dems will need a good narrative and message in ’16

Democrats are now looking to 2016 as their salvation when anticipated turnout is up to save them. Don’t count on pure demographics to bail them out. One still needs a good narrative and message, an argument to give people a reason to vote.

Obama’s lasting legacy may be one I saw in a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago when one person turned to another and said, “I think Obama has the potential to get a whole new generation disillusioned.” It is this disillusionment that is the reason we gave an election this past Tuesday and no one came.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this commentary originally appeared. 


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 11/07/2014 - 03:46 pm.

    Another Factor

    Is it possible that the constant barrage of advertising (no matter what its tone) is a contributory factor?

    All I have is anecdotal evidence, but wow were people of all partisan stripes put off by the constant drumbeat. When I reminded a couple of them that we should be thankful we were not in states that had really contested races, they recoiled at the thought of even *more* of the [crap] being broadcast, called, and mailed.

    Disillusionment in the electorate can have many causes, and to this lay person, the sheer din played a part.

    Final statement – it was embarrassing to this lifelong Minnesotan to see our turnout almost go below 50%. Truly embarrassing.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/09/2014 - 10:51 pm.

      Excellent Point

      I was so happy when election day came… Just so I would not have to listen to any more pointless commercials…

  2. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 11/08/2014 - 02:41 am.

    Once again

    a really useful article from David Schultz.
    I will disagree on one point where he says the administration was not active on global warming. Actually, Obama has spent billions on futile efforts to to attack a non existent threat. He has big programs on erratic energy sources like solar, wind, and biofuels. And nothing on non-emitting nuclear – the best answer to coal.
    Republicans will also move on opening the northern segment of the Keystone pipeline and reopening Yucca Mountain for spent nuclear fuel.
    The economy has improved, but Obama didn’t benefit as he opposes the thing that is boosting the economy – the boom in oil and gas exploration and production with all those high paying jobs.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/08/2014 - 06:35 am.


    A lot went wrong in the last election season. I circulated Professor Schulz’s previous article to a lot of my DFL friends, and there was a lot of aggravation with how some of the terms were loaded, much less aggravation with many of it’s basic ideas. To a great extent the professor was describing problems we were already aware of, and had been struggling with. It turns out the professor was right, and now we are dealing with the aftermath.

    Professor Schulz complains that the DFL that we ran a one size fits all cookie cutter campaign. There is some truth to the that, but the reason that happens has a lot to do with the electoral challenge we faced and the conflicting needs between the races. We fought two statewide campaign, and we did it successfully, and we did it by piling up votes in urban areas. But our campaigning in that regard left us vulnerable to the charge of being metrocentric, unable to break out of the professor’s cookie cutter. But how could things have gone differently and what else could we have done. Statewide was where the DFL money was. Franken raised zillions of dollars for his race, and none of it wen to rural legislative campaigns. His donors didn’t care about that. Republicans on the other hand, who were aware early on that they didn’t have much of a chance on the statewide races and who understand they had no prospects at all in the city, were able to focus on the rural areas where small shifts in voting which would have not impact at all on the statewide races, would be divisive. Perhaps I should also note here that the GOP did run cookie cutter campaigns themselves in the rural areas, sending out the same materials only with different candidate names substituted.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 11/10/2014 - 03:07 pm.

      The idea that political opinions in this country

      Is a “science” is laughable, and the tv pundits on politics prove it.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/08/2014 - 08:07 am.

    Rural issues

    Here is part of the problem. I have asked some DFLer’s involved in elections and have asked them, why aren’t we running well in greater Minnesota? Are there issues we are neglecting? And the answer I am getting back is no, there aren’t a lot of issues where there is a lot of dissatisfaction from outstate legislators. Their agenda is doing just fine at the state capitol. Greater Minnesota does have it’s problems, but they are systemic and it’s not as if either party has or even pretends to have, an easy solution for them. And let’s take a look at the campaign the Republicans did wage. The lit I saw had a lot to say about the senate office building. Whatever the merits of that issue, they didn’t have much relevance to the day to day problems of greater Minnesota.

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/08/2014 - 08:12 am.

    burning issue(s)

    Without a burning issue the majority of people do not vote. My local school district had high school students do a mock vote in the past election. I found it sadly humorous that we are trying to educate our young students about the democratic process yet once they can vote they have the lowest voting percentage of any age group (18-24).

  6. Submitted by Robert McManus on 11/08/2014 - 02:40 pm.

    I just found out my adopted younger sister of hispanic descent living in Hawaii and her eighteen year old son didn’t vote, because they “hadn’t gotten around to registering”. And Bill Maher recently had a film clip in which a white gentleman, older than 40, was interviewed. He was for all the liberal agenda: gay marriage, stopping global warming, legalized marijuana, universal health care… He said he would vote for candidates that supported those things “as long as they have an R in front of their name”.

    There is a problem when those who stand to benefit the most from sensible policies don’t even bother to register, let alone vote and those who agree most with sensible policies check their brain at the door due to blind party loyalties and quasi-religious faith in the ‘team’ they inexplicably feel loyalty to.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/08/2014 - 05:20 pm.

    “He gives a good speech…” –> “disillusionment, disappointment”

    In terms of war policy, what is the difference between Bush and Obama ?? I’m sure some discriminations could be found, but they would be trivial. The United States under Obama is doubling down on the neocons’ view that we are in control of history, and if it’s not going well presently, then send out more drones, destabilize more governments, spend more money on security, send more agents by the tens of thousands into foreign countries, but by all means, don’t change our foreign policy.

    In terms of privacy and civil liberties, what is the difference between Bush, Cheney, and the whole neocon gang who rammed those new laws through a compliant Congress, and then illegally exceeded even those laws (Patriot Act, etc.) ?? Obama has extended the whole world of secrecy and diminished civil liberties to the extent he might have been part of the Bush team.

    I read some responses of the younger set explaining why they were turned off to the election, and in general, it seems the canned messaging and nonsensical appeals – which do not speak to the real world issues of the young – made them gag. They are fatigued to think this is what passes for government and political campaigning. This failure includes the Democratic party, it’s not just the Republicans, a case of TweedleDum or TweedleDee.

    I was once inspired by Obama’s speeches. Now I turn the tube off. I’ve heard enough.

  8. Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/09/2014 - 06:19 am.

    Mitch McConnell as a Speedbump Worked

    The failure to continue a strong narrative speaks to a message too many didn’t have the courage to stand behind, or were dissuaded from supporting.

    People want icons to hide behind.
    That made Reagan, who was not so great a president out of the chute, but played one on TV: He got to play an understanding grandfather.

    GWB was going to be one disastrous president, until he got his photo moment on a pile of rubble. Then everyone needed him to “play outside his skill set.” By & large, he was shown the respect of the office most of the time.

    A part of the process which makes Obama perceived less than perfectly effective, was a barrage, though not of ads:

    It the willingness for the right wingers to hold fast to an exhausting message, even to the detriment of the country. Their counter-message was all “Not THIS guy.”

    That’s what the “racism” theme is all about – a willingness to pull out all the stops that would not be done to most other people holding the office. For example, McConnell’s “This President” theme has a subtext.

    And the finger-waggling done by a perhaps inebriated John Boehner.
    People don’t have to be individually racist – to plug into the veiled themes.

    It was also the fact that Obama was not the angry black man both sides wanted him to be.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/09/2014 - 07:53 am.

    Burning issues

    That’s an interesting issue. What kind of issue burns? What does it mean for an issue to burn? Obamacare, whatever you think of it, is the most important domestic political initiative since Medicare, and it will continue to highly controversial. Yet by election time, it was mostly an afterthought. What Republicans talked a lot was the Senate Office building, an issue that burns hot but with no real substance.

    By the way, if I were in the Republican majority in the House, the first bill I would propose and pass would require that a repurposiing of the senate office building. My thought is that it should be turned over to the University of Minnesota and used as classroom space for the study of government.

  10. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/10/2014 - 11:57 am.

    Over my lifetime, I have observed that a lot of voters

    ignore party labels and may not even know what each party stands for but simply vote for the candidate they find more likable for whatever reason.

    For example, in the 2000 election, some voters said that Bush was the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with. Others vote for a candidate because they think he or she “has a nice family” or is a member of the same religious group or has a more appealing biography. My grandmother once expressed admiration for a politician from another state whom she had seen profiled on “60 Minutes,” at least until I told her about the political positions behind the attractive personality.

    Perhaps the Republicans in Greater Minnesota were better at choosing candidates whose personalities resonated better with their voters.

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