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For Democrats, GOP Voter Intensity Trumps Americans' Propensity Again

November 6, 2014

Rout. Thumpin'. Shellacking. Call it what you will, but Democrats suffered a defeat even more dispiriting than the larger 2010 drubbing that delivered the House majority to the GOP. More dispiriting, that is, because the state of the nation has improved so dramatically over the past four years. Unemployment is down to 5.9 percent and consumer confidence at back to levels not seen since before the deep recession which began in late 2007. The stock market is at record highs while the annual federal budget deficit is less than half of what it was when Barack Obama first took the oath of office. While too many Americans clearly still do not see it or feel it, the growing U.S. economy is consistently producing new jobs, if not yet higher wages to match.
Nevertheless, Democrats nationwide got crushed on Election Day 2014 for the same reason they now typically do in midterm balloting. As the charts below once again reveal, Republican voter intensity trumped Americans' propensity to support Democrats on the issues. In a nutshell, Republicans simply were more motivated to vote. Vote, that is, against Barack Obama, against abortion and marriage equality, and even against Ebola and ISIS. To put it another way, Republican fear and loathing beat Democratic hope and change.

The turnout numbers above tell the tale, or at least much of it. Since 2000, Americans have turned out for presidential elections at rates between 15 and 20 points higher than in midterm Congressional elections. But according to preliminary data compiled by the U.S. Election Project, 2014 turnout plummeted to just 36.6 percent of the roughly 230 million Americans eligible to vote, well below the typical 40 percent range.
The blame for the electorate's apathetic performance goes to the Democrats. As a Gallup pre-election survey showed, with the exception of President Bush's Katrina and Iraq backlash year in 2006, Republicans have enjoyed a large "enthusiasm gap" among likely voters

Writing at Vox, Ezra Klein summed up the Democrats' midterm turnout woes with two charts which show that the Congressional electorate is whiter and older than in presidential years.

But those pictures don't sufficiently convey the failure of the Democratic coalition to deliver when the party's presidential candidate isn't on the ballot. While not as strong as when Obama was reelected in 2012, Democratic shares of the black and Hispanic vote were basically unchanged compared to the 2010 midterms. The New York Times chart shows that Democrats actually did better among seniors than in the GOP wave of 2010. (That year, Republicans House candidates carried those 65 and older by a staggering 59-38 margin.)

But even that chart obscures the magnitude of the Democrats' failure to get younger votes to the polls on Tuesday. As NBC showed, voters over age 60 made up a jaw-dropping 37 percent of those who cast ballots this year. But the midterm millennial malaise is back: voters under age 30 represented the same dismal 12 percent share as in 2010 and 2006:

Yet the Democrats' collective whiff on Tuesday had little to do with voters' rejection of either their party or their positions. After all, as the Pew Research Center found, it is the GOP which suffers from a much larger favorability gap:

That gap extends to many of the parties' respective policies as well. As Zachary Goldfarb explained, "Americans will vote for Republicans even though they disagree with them on everything":

Voters are a confused lot. Yes, they have fallen out with Obama, but on the biggest issues facing Congress, they still agree with Democrats on ... almost everything. That includes issues like raising the minimum wage, making the rich pay more in taxes, letting illegal immigrants stay in the United States, taking action to stem global warming, legalizing same sex marriage and fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it.

It is doubtless true, as Greg Sargent argued, that "The failure of the Democrats' economic message to win over persuadable voters, ones outside the ascendant Democratic coalition, in the numbers needed to offset the structural disadvantages Democratic incumbents and candidates faced" helped cost their party the Senate and countless state houses and governorships. But the Democrats' turnout disaster is real and chronic. Elections, after all, are decided not by what a majority of the people favor, but by the majority that actually votes. Once again this week, Republican voters felt more strongly about the issues, messages and people they care about. That's because in midterms, voter intensity trumps voter propensity.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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