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The Next Election: The Surprising Reality

Pendulum Swing

edited by Larry J. Sabato
Longman, 394 pp., $19.95 (paper)
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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?

1.

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.

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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

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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.

2.

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.

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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.

3.

The Tea Party doesn’t have a national headquarters or an official governing body. Nor is there a reliable count of its members, simply because there’s no formal way for adherents to sign up. At best, it’s a congeries of local groups, often six people gathered in a living room. Indiana has seventy-two affiliates, among them “Johnny Appleseeds” and “Hoosiers for Small Government.” Still, the Tea Party is organized enough to maintain a website selling Tea Party golf balls ($10.95), Tea Party cigars ($9.95), and children’s coloring books ($4.99). Visitors are invited to sign a petition demanding repeal of the Affordable Care Act. As of early July, 152,175 people had put down their names, a possible measure of the group’s core supporters.

The Tea Party gets attention because it expresses a mood, an attitude, an ideology that has sympathizers beyond its actual rolls. The House of Representatives has a Tea Party caucus with sixty members, according to the website of caucus chairman Michele Bachmann, although a number of other members vote with it. A New York Times/CBS poll, conducted about a year ago, found that 18 percent of those it sampled were willing to be listed as Tea Party “supporters.” Kate Zernike draws on this group in writing Boiling Mad. A further value of her book is that she took to the road, attending rallies and listening in the aforesaid living rooms.

What she saw and heard fills out Mark Lilla’s analysis in these pages last year.5 He characterized the Tea Party as a “libertarian eruption,” which has attracted “individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone,” particularly if they are freed of their tax burdens. Zernike notes that almost all are Republicans, intent on purifying their party. Significantly, they are not local elites. Fewer than half are college graduates and only a quarter earn over $100,000. Given their antipathy to public programs, it is revealing to learn that two out of three feel Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost, and just over half think their own tax bill is fair. On religious grounds, many oppose federal and state rules tolerating abortion or allowing homosexuals to marry. At the same time, by two to one, they want firearms banned in public places, even while favoring gun ownership.

At the Tea Party base Zernike found “a visceral belief that government had taken control of their lives.” Here I wanted to know more. In the course of a day, how and where do they feel the heavy hand of the state? I can understand why pig and poultry processors might cavil at inspections or oil companies prefer to write their own rules. But the Tea Party supporters in Boiling Mad seem more concerned with a personal individuality, with a sense that taxation and other government requirements have impinged on what they see as the distinctive core of their lives. The nearly half who feel the tax bill is unfair may well feel that they would have better lives if they could use that money for themselves, their families, or causes of their own choosing.

4.

The Republican Party we know today had its origins in 1946, when it ended fourteen years of Democratic dominion, presenting itself as the voice of ordinary Americans. Its slogan for that year’s congressional races was “Had Enough?,” playing on resentment over rising prices and postwar shortages. Swept in were figures like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, who created the epithet “un-American,” an accusation almost impossible to refute. Since then, the party has exhibited a coarse strain, which its corporate wing tolerates as a price of prevailing. “Impeach Earl Warren!” came later, as did Willie Horton, followed by “class warfare,” “death panels,” and the “Swift Boat” attacks. Allen West, a much-showcased new GOP congressman from Florida, calls the President “a low-level socialist agitator.”

Few Democrats can bring themselves to reply in kind. Instead, they tend to respond in paragraphs, feeling most issues need extended analysis. (During a 2004 debate, John Kerry replied that a foreign policy issue was more “nuanced” than George Bush had made out.) If Democrats have a problem here, it’s what I might call a didactic disposition: wordy discourse not connected with clear plans for action. The exemplar of this tendency was Adlai Stevenson, followed by a sad succession of defeated candidates: George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Truth to tell, our current president sounds more like them than, say, Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, both of whom won reelection. Nor is this a matter to be resolved by coaching or a new set of speechwriters. Nature and nurture have given Barack Obama a temperament that well suits many of his responsibilities, but the charisma so attractive during his election has failed along with his failure to stimulate the economy. How might he counter the new populism of the GOP?

Obama could do worse than revisit the “Had Enough?” slogan of 1946, which gave Republicans control of Congress, in circumstances that have some parallels with 2010. Harry Truman gave the GOP time to compile a record, and then set out for a full term of his own. In June 1948, he told a Bremerton, Washington, rally: “They are going…to tell you what a great Congress they have been. If you believe that, you are bigger suckers than I think you are.”6

A day or so earlier in Spokane, he labeled the 80th Congress the “worst since the first one met,” soon abridged to “The Worst Since the First.” “Lay It On, Harry!” became the audience response, revving up to “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” Not only did he, against all forecasts, get his own term in November; he restored Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Obama seems hardly capable of expressing anger, but he’s shown he has a deft wit. A good question is whether he can use it as a rapier to deflate bogus Republican claims not only about Obamacare but about himself.

5.

For practical purposes, national parties have ceased to exist. The conventions, once scenes of open debates and closed-door deals, no longer choose the candidates. Titular national committees are overshadowed by groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which raise funds on their own and then parcel them out. At the federal level, the GOP currently has two centers of power, which basically agree on policies and principles. One is its five-member majority on the Supreme Court, whose leanings are now patently partisan. The other is the House of Representatives, where John Boehner sets the agenda and Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” has become—at least for the next few months—the party’s de facto platform. Of course, the Republicans also have their eye on the Senate, where Democrats hold twenty-two of the thirty-three seats that fall open next year. But the big prize is obviously the presidency. And here the lack of a coherent national party takes a toll. Indeed, no discrete group will have a final say on who will be the nominee.

A free-for-all that literally anyone can enter is already underway. At this writing, I count nine candidates who have announced or aren’t objecting if their names are raised: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Five have been governors and four have served in Congress. Six of them—Bachmann, Gingrich, Palin, Paul, Perry, and Santorum—stand unabashedly on the right, although Paul is a libertarian who would legalize recreational drugs and purchased sex. All have or have had followings within the party, whose core of committed voters is surprisingly small.

A good measure of the size of their following is who shows up for the caucuses and primaries. In 2008, amid much attention, the chief contenders were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Rudolph Giuliani. Yet the total turnout was only 22 million, about 17 percent of the November electorate. (The Democrats drew 38 million.) If the GOP regulars are in a Goldwater mood, Bachmann might top the poll and become their nominee. Still, there is no way she or any other of the five could attract enough votes to win the White House. There simply isn’t that large a constituency for their ideology.

Tim Pawlenty, a two-term governor of Minnesota, has conservative credentials, but wears them a little more lightly. His campaign biography, Courage to Stand, devotes much of its space to religion. He was raised a Catholic but now attends his wife’s Baptist church, and increasingly quotes the Bible (“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” James, 4:14). His chief criticisms of Obama’s foreign record are his “appeasement of Iran’s ayatollahs” and “his betrayal of Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense.” He says nothing I can find about China.

Only Romney and Huntsman look plausible. In earlier times, the party’s inner circle would have tapped one of them, and the convention would rally around him. But today nominations are given over to the party regulars who show up in all seasons. So it is left to them to vet or veto candidates on whatever grounds they choose. Romney and Huntsman are Mormons, which bothers some evangelicals. While serving as governor of Massachusetts, Romney set up a health plan much like Obama’s, which can’t sit well with the GOP’s pledge to repeal the national law, however much he now insists that each state should have its own plan. Huntsman chose to serve as Obama’s ambassador to China and speaks Mandarin, which will raise grassroots GOP suspicions. Recall how John Kerry had to hide his fluent French. Still, it’s possible that either one might end up prevailing in the primaries. Robert Dole and McCain did, despite their relative moderation at the time. But both then encountered a problem: a lot of the more conservative Republicans felt slighted by their candidacies and stayed at home.

For various reasons, some disquieting, Obama has become an easy target. Although it is never openly stated, there are Americans who don’t want to be governed by a black man. (Some of the same people find him too much a Harvard product.) Many of the twenty-nine states under Republican control are moving to disenfranchise lower-income voters by requiring state identification cards and curbing early voting. Some are following Wisconsin and Ohio in barring political activities by public service unions. For the House, members of the Republican majority in the states are redrawing districts in ways favorable to the party for the 2012 elections. (Texas did this prior to 2010, parlaying the GOP’s 59 percent of the votes into 72 percent of the state’s seats.)

Still, a basic point is that 2012 will have a different—and much more varied—electorate. If Barack Obama takes a leaf from Harry Truman, he will go on the offensive, making the Boehner-Ryan record the centerpiece of his campaign. Democrats shouldn’t be above implanting a few fears, especially about the consequences of the Republicans’ plan to shift Medicare to private insurers. Or they can point out that families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 (average income: $86,421) now end up paying 13.5 percent of their income to the IRS, while the wealthiest four hundred households (average income: $270,510,000) are averaging 18.1 percent.7 While Obama may not match his 2008 turnout, it shouldn’t be surprising if he does. Even desultory presidential years bring more voters to the polls. If the appeal is kept simple—“let him finish the job”—it’s far from certain that a majority will go for what the GOP is offering. Yet most forecasts are that unemployment will remain high in 2012. And the folklore is that incumbents rarely win if those rates don’t decline.

Republicans claim that “job creation” will result from just about everything they seek, whether drilling on public lands or letting banks regulate themselves or lowering corporate taxes. But past a point, such claims lose credibility. While Americans may not identify along class lines, they are not unaware of which interests gain when the GOP wins. 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. The same effect could retain a Democratic Senate. Of the twenty-three seats up for renewal that are held by Democrats or independents, eighteen are in states that were carried by Obama.

The real test will be whether Obama can carry such states as Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. In the end, turning out voters in a presidential election rests far more on enthusiasm than money. If Obama can reinvigorate that energy in 2012, the GOP’s principal redoubt, whether in curtailing abortion, mandated medical care, or limits on corporate political spending, will be the Supreme Court.

—July 21, 2011

Letters

Corrections September 29, 2011

  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. 

  5. 5

    The Tea Party Jacobins,” The New York Review, May 27, 2010. 

  6. 6

    Democrats: Varied Adventures in the West,” Time, June 21, 1948. 

  7. 7

    See Table 1.1, 2008, in “ SOI Tax Stats—Individual Income Tax Returns Publication 1304,” and Table 1 in “The 400 Individual Income Tax Returns Reporting the Highest Adjusted Gross Income, 1992–2008,” both at irs.gov/taxstats/index.html. 

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