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The Next Election: The Surprising Reality

Pendulum Swing

edited by Larry J. Sabato
Longman, 394 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Cheryl Senter/Polaris
Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul at the first Republican presidential debate for the 2012 election, Manchester, New Hampshire, June 13, 2011

The 2010 election galvanized the GOP. The party won seven new places in the Senate, as many new governorships, and took the seats of 720 Democrats in state legislatures, giving it complete control in twenty-nine states. But the most palpable shift was in the House of Representatives, where sixty-three districts changed hands. It was the largest switch since 1932, when 101 Republicans lost their seats. John Boehner and his colleagues believe they have a national mandate. To them, the country is disenchanted with Barack Obama and the party he represents; the forces that brought the 2010 sweep are poised for 2012. Could they be correct?


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.1


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,2 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.


The 2012 electorate will differ from 2010’s in a crucial respect: it will contain nearly 50 million additional voters. Some will be new, but most of them will be people who supported Obama in 2008. Compared with the 2010 House electorate, they will be younger, more ethnically diverse, with fewer identifying themselves as conservatives, and a higher proportion will be women. Most of them would not have voted for the Republicans who now make up John Boehner’s House.

I find it puzzling that Boehner, Paul Ryan, and most of their colleagues in both chambers believe that their platform has a national majority behind it. The fact is that current House Republicans received 30,799,391 votes, compared with Obama’s 69,498,215 total. Even so, they feel that most Americans are deeply disturbed about deficits and the debt, as well as the fact and fear of unemployment. Regarding the latter, they reiterate that they are the party that can and will create jobs. Indeed, that is their claimed justification for many of the policies they favor, from resuming oil drilling to giving favored treatment for overseas earnings.

But according to polls, most voters understand the basic GOP premise: if jobs are to be created, the rich and corporate employers must be induced to invest, notably by reducing their taxes. In the same vein, banks and businesses must be freed from regulation, the idea being that as they prosper, the public will benefit.

The 2012 electorate will also be asked by the Republican presidential candidate to acknowledge that federal programs must be curtailed to bring the budget closer to a balance. Prominent in Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” are partial privatizations of Medicare and Social Security; it will be difficult to persuade many middle-class voters to accept either one. Still, the GOP’s high ground is its concern for high unemployment now and for the long-term health of the economy. For good or ill, Democrats have not been able to offer clear hope to the 9 percent who seek work and cannot find a job. Their main claim is that shortfalls in government revenues—revenues that would help create jobs—should be covered by higher taxes on more affluent brackets.

The GOP, moreover, has something new going for it. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s solicitude for corporate speech,3 companies can aid candidates by funneling anonymous money to campaigns through innocuous-sounding groups. In 2010, over $100 million was spent by conservative figureheads like American Crossroads ($21,553,277) and the American Action Network ($20,935,958), as well as the aboveboard US Chamber of Commerce ($31,207,114). Liberal philanthropists such as George Soros and David Geffen, along with whatever is left of unions, will have difficulty matching sums like these. Even so, groups such as MoveOn .org are likely to have an effect, as will Internet donations. But this leads to a question that has long bedeviled political scientists: To what extent, if at all, does money provide an extra edge that can bring success at the polls?

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.” He points to the huge amount of money raised by Sharron Angle in Nevada and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, both of whom were defeated by Democrats who spent a lot less. By contrast, John McCain spent “only” $383 million, because he opted to take public financing. Barack Obama raised and spent $760 million. Might Obama still have won if he had had to make do with $383 million? The figures in Table C suggest that as funds become available, campaigns are resourceful in finding ways to spend them. While Democrats have shown that they are more adept at using informal networks like Facebook and Twitter, which will figure strongly in 2012, overhead costs apparently add up.


In fact, Obama’s campaign was immensely efficient. David Plouffe, who worked out its strategy, argues that victory lay in the digital details. “Many of the people we wanted to reach were spending more of their time on the Internet,” he recalls in The Audacity to Win. “Our early commitment to a digitally based platform paid huge dividends.” Obama early set up a Facebook site, which soon yielded him 20 million “friends.” The campaign amassed files of e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, to which went text appeals and Twitter updates. Researchers concentrated on e-mail and cell phone users, focusing on locating every “sporadic-voting” Democrat.

Generally, when Democrats win, it is because they have more volunteers to ring bells and get people to the polls. The difference in 2008 was that “direct digital communication” preceded these visits. When Republicans have fewer such troops, they hope that alternatives such as advertising will put them over the top. Still, there’s no hard evidence that around-the-clock TV spots change minds or stir people to vote. Indeed, there’s something suspect about a logic that says that airing more commercials will bring more people to your side. The reverse just might be true. Even in 2010, it wasn’t GOP money that turned the tide; angry conservatives came out on their own.

The best arguments against the Citizens United decision are moral and aesthetic. Corporations are viewed by Supreme Court decisions as “persons” because they can make contracts, or buy media space and time to sell their products. But that doesn’t make them citizens. They claim a right to political “speech,” yet they are not human beings but organizations chartered to make money. Allowing General Electric to finance candidates is comparable to allowing it to buy a bundle of actual votes to cast in the names of its shareholders or employees. If Obama begins to look like a possible winner, the question will arise about what portion of corporate cash made possible by Citizens United will start flowing his way.

Big corporate donors will try hard to finance a Republican House and Senate, and the Citizens United decision is very likely to have a skewed effect on state and local politics. As Ronald Dworkin wrote in these pages, “What legislator tempted to vote for health care reform…would be indifferent to the prospect that his reelection campaign could be swamped in a tsunami of expensive negative advertising?”4 Still, in a presidential year corporate strategists may want to hedge by donating to both parties.

  1. 1

    See Hendrik Hertzberg, “Electoral Dissonance,” The New Yorker, November 15, 2010. 

  2. 2

    See “The Long Shot,” The New York Review, May 12, 2011. 

  3. 3

    See Ronald Dworkin, “The Court’s Embarrassingly Bad Decisions,” The New York Review, May 26, 2011. 

  4. 4

    The ‘Devastating’ Decision,” The New York Review, February 25, 2010. 

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