Most of the electorate can’t be bothered with midterm elections, and this has had large consequences—none of them good—for our political system and our country. Voting for a president might be exciting or dutiful, worth troubling ourselves for. But the midterms, in which a varying number of governorships are up for election, as well as the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate, just don’t seem worth as much effort. Such inaction is a political act in itself, with major effects.
In the past ten elections, voter turnout for presidential contests—which requires a tremendous and expensive effort by the campaigns—has ranged from 51.7 to 61.6 percent, while for the midterms it’s been in the high thirties. Turnout was highest for the two midterms in which the Republicans made their greatest gains: in 1994, when Clinton was president, it was 41.1 percent and in 2010 it was 41.6 percent. In 2006, when Bush was president, the Democrats took over the House and Senate and won most of the governorships, turnout was the next highest, 40.4 percent. The quality of the candidates, the economy, and many unexpected issues of course determine the atmosphere of an election; but in the end turnout is almost always decisive.
The midterms, with their lower turnout, reward intensity. In 2010, the Republicans were sufficiently worked up about the new health care law and an old standby, “government spending,” particularly the stimulus bill, to drive them to the polls in far larger numbers than the Democrats. A slight upward tick in turnout numbers can have a disproportionate impact in Congress and many of the states, and therefore the country as a whole. The difference in turnout caused such a change in 2010; in fact, the Republicans gained sixty-three House seats and took control of both the governorships and the legislatures in twelve states; the Democrats ended up with control of the fewest state legislative bodies since 1946. The midterms go a long way toward explaining the dismaying spectacle in Washington today. State elections bear much of the responsibility for the near paralysis in Congress thus far this year and the extremism that has gripped the House Republicans and is oozing over into the Senate.
The difference in the turnouts for presidential and midterm elections means that there are now almost two different electorates. Typically, the midterm electorate is skewed toward the white and elderly. In 2010 the youth vote dropped a full 60 percent from 2008. Those who are disappointed with the president they helped elect two years earlier and decide to stay home have the same effect on an election as those who vote for the opposition candidate.
Little wonder, then, that there can be such a gulf between the president and Congress, particularly the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.