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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Theories For the 2009 Turnout Calamity

Now that the results from NJ and VA have been masticated for a few days, it´s pretty obvious that the most ominous–but potentially reversible–factor in the dual Democratic defeats was a massive change in the composition of the electorate. According to exit polls, under-30 voters represented 21 percent of the Virginia electorate in 2008, and only 10 percent last Tuesday. And in NJ, the under-30 share of the vote dropped from 17 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2009.
African-American turnout didn´t drop so much; in VA, it declined from 20% of the electorate in 2009 to 16 percent this year, and in NJ, it actually went up marginally as a share of the electorate. But since turnout generally dropped, it´s clear that 2008´s massive African-American turnout for the Democratic ticket was not replicated.
With Democratic fears about 2010 already heavily focused on the typically older and whiter composition of midterm electorates, the NJ-VA results simply confirm what we already knew, but at a level of intensity that is surprisiing (though Corzine´s general unpopularity and Deeds´ questionable campaign tactics are responsible for some of the problem).
The question going forward, of course, is why the Obama Coalition turnout was so weak, and what, if anything, Demcrats can do to reverse this trend during the next year.
And that´s where the relative clarity over the numbers breaks down into varying interpretations over the implications.
Unsurprisingly, many self-conscious Democratic progressives think that Obama´s “centrism” has “discouraged the Democratic base,” much as, they believe, Bill Clinton did so in his first two years, leading to the Republican landslide of 1994. In this view, the administration and congressional Democrats need to forget once and for all about “bipartisanship,” congressional compromises, Blue-Dog-coddling, or deficit worries, and plunge ahead with a boldly progressive agenda that revitalizes the 2008 coalition. This interpretation, of course, collides with the counsel of those focused on the disastrous performance of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial candidates among independents, who are (often falsely) assumed to be “centrist” in orientation.
Others focus on the mechanics of voter mobilization, and suggest that what most needs to happen in the next year is a rebuilding of the Obama ¨”machine” that helped boost minority and youth turnout to historic levels in 2008.
And a third theory is simply that conditions in the country, and the enduring unpopularity of both political parties, has eroded the Democratic vote in those segments of the electorate least likely to vote (young voters being most conspicious in that category). According to this theory, a record of forward momentum in Congress (on health care and climate change) and on the economy is most crucial in reducing the fallloff in pro-Obama turnout and the carnage among independents.
The first and third theories point in different directions, since a ¨”bold progressive¨ direction may not be consistent with congressional accomplishments (aiming instead at a Trumanesque placement of blame on Republican obstruction and extremism). And both theories may not sufficiently account for the difficulty in transferring Obama´s relatively strong approval ratings in the potential electorate as a whole to actual voters deciding between actual Democratic and Republican candidates competing across the country in individual races. As Jonathan Singer pointed out this week at MyDD, one scenario going forward is that Barack Obama could become a latter-day Ike, incapable of transferring personal popularity to his party (though split-ticket voting has vastly declined since the 1950s).
Democrats need to debate and sort out these theories of last week´s turnout calamity. But one this is clear: a continuing focus on the dangerous extremism of the GOP is consistent with every theory, particularly if, as is likely, Republicans go into 2010 hoping to reclaim control of the House, and head towards 2012 with a presidential field tilting to the crazy Right. You can argue all day about whether Obama or congressional Democrats have dashed the hopes of many 2008 voters for dramatic change in Washington. But 2008 Obama voters who are made abundantly aware that today´s Republicans want to govern from a position well to the Right of that of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay are a lot more likely to go to the polls next November no matter how sanguine they are about the administration´s record.

2 comments on “Theories For the 2009 Turnout Calamity

  1. mjshep on

    “Corzine´s general unpopularity and Deeds´ questionable campaign tactics are responsible for some of the problem.”
    I think they are responsible for most of the problem. Deeds’ campaign was not just questionable, it was execrable. It was as if it was designed to alienate the Democratic base and suppress turnout. Going into a debate and declaring he’d opt-out of a public plan if one was offered is like rat poison to Democrats who see it as the linchpin of health care reform. Why would any Dem waste the gas to go to the polls to vote for this stuttering, charisma challenged idiot?
    Corzine was not just unpopular. He was hated and was a former Goldman Sachs bigwig. Not a good thing to be in 2009.
    Of course, lost in all of this is the continuing self destruction of the GOP in NY 23.

    Reply
  2. janinsanfran on

    But 2008 Obama voters who are made abundantly aware that today´s Republicans want to govern from a position well to the Right of that of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay are a lot more likely to go to the polls next November no matter how sanguine they are about the administration´s record.
    That analysis works for the segment of the electorate that can be motivated to participate out of sheer self-defense. But precisely the part of the Obama coalition that isn’t turing out — young voters — are those who can only be motivated by hope. Compare Obama’s results to Kerry’s. You can’t activate the not-yet-jaded for defense alone.

    Reply

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