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.
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