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What if we gave an election and nobody came?

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.

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?

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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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