The problem with much political horse-race analysis

John Heilemann, taking the pulse of the Obama strategy for 2012, in NY Mag, argues:

…to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is just fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of. For others in the party in both politics and business, however, the new Obama posture is cause for concern. From the gay- marriage decision to the onslaught on Bain, they see the president and his team as coming across as too divisive, too conventional, and too nakedly political, putting at risk Obama’s greatest asset—his likability—with the voters in the middle of the electorate who will ultimately decide his fate.

The last sentence is what I want to focus on. That “undecided” voters decide presidential elections is such widely accepted knowledge that it is claimed without source or citation by just about everyone in the so-called know. Problem is, it is not only wrong, but the opposite of the truth, unless by “undecided” you mean ‘undecided to vote.’ It is turnout that determines elections. An otherwise interesting political reporter like Heilemann would do well to read Andrew Hacker’s article in the NY Review from last year:

For many years, Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia has been the person to go to for often ignored voting statistics and insight into their meaning. His edited volume on the 2010 elections, Pendulum Swing, is indispensable for deconstructing their results and what they may portend for next year’s contests. While he and his coauthors consider the entire electoral spectrum, they mainly focus on the circumstances that produced the Boehner House. A common explanation has been “buyer’s remorse” on the part of erstwhile Obama supporters. It can’t be denied that many people have felt let down by some of his positions, whether on Guantánamo or being too forgiving toward Wall Street, and particularly by the failure of the administration to do more to create jobs. Indeed, for much of this year, his approval ratings have been below the halfway mark. But Sabato points to a more systemic cause, one not discussed in commentaries that seek a wide audience.

“Every election,” Sabato reminds us, “is determined by the people who show up.” A truism perhaps, but a truth often ignored in electoral analysis. The fact is that most Americans are not committed voters. Few turn out every year, and many never do at all. 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. The percentages in Table A suggest that it is difficult, verging on impossible, to raise turnouts much over 60 percent in presidential years or more than 40 percent in midterm elections. Nor has it been for lack of trying. There are get-out-the-vote drives, usually with energy and money behind them. Yet the enthusiasn for Obama barely raised participation above the level that was mustered for John Kerry and George W. Bush.

The 2010 turnout was in the usual midterm range, about twenty points below the preceding presidential figure. But the dip was not at all the same for both parties (see Table B). 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. Had they been the electorate in 2008, John McCain would now be president.

Why couldn’t the Democrats rouse more of the people they had enlisted for Obama? It wasn’t that decisively large numbers had become disaffected during his first twenty-two months. 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.

In theory, people who had lost their jobs or had homes foreclosed would have good reason to go to the polls. But for many if not most of them, voting hasn’t been part of their lives. It’s easy to say that they could be got to the polls if a phalanx of volunteers sought them out. But that kind of drive rarely gets underway in midterm years. The GOP turnout in 2010 consisted mainly of people who had their own motives for voting, many of whom had sat it out for McCain, and saw a new chance for their party.

In fact, 2010 began in January. Obama had carried Massachusetts with 1,904,097 votes, well ahead of the 1,108,854 for McCain. Some fourteen months later, a special election was held to fill the Senate seat of Edward M. Kennedy. As is well known, Scott Brown, on the Republican line, defeated Martha Coakley, who had been regarded as the likely winner. After all, she had become the state’s attorney general with a 73 percent majority. Brown’s victory has been attributed to his congenial personality and a vigorous campaign. But most of his 1,168,178 votes came from people who had supported McCain, and saw the contest as a second chance at bat. Coakley’s disappointing l,060,861 votes showed that a large swath of Obama’s supporters had stayed at home, even though the President had made it clear that he fully supported her. It is true that she was a weak and error-prone candidate, as Christopher Benfey showed in these pages, and that Brown proved himself attractive and resourceful. But it’s also clear that many of Obama’s supporters weren’t attuned to off-season voting.

Link to Hacker’s article.

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