Turnout Disparities and the Democratic Dilemma for 2014

As Rich Yeselson mentioned in his post earlier today, and as I’ve harped on now and then for several years, the biggest single under-discussed aspect of contemporary national politics is the consistent disparity in turnout patterns between presidential and non-presidential elections, which at the moment happen to align almost perfectly with party preferences.

By that I mean that midterms always, always produce an electorate that is older and whiter than presidential cycles. In 2006, the electorate was 79% white, with African-Americans composing 10% of the electorate and Latinos 8%. In 2010, the numbers were almost identical. In 2006, voters under 30 were 12%, while those over 65 were 19%. In 2010, under-30s were 11%, over-60s were 21%. Meanwhile, in 2008, whites were 74%, African-Americans were 13%, Hispanics were 9%. In 2012 whites were 72%, African-Americans were 13%, Latinos were 10% (Asians, BTW, were up from 2% to 3%). In 2008, under-30s were 18%, and actually increased to 19% in 2012. In 2008, over-65s were 16%, exactly where they were in 2012.

2006 was a great Democratic year mainly because Democrats broke even with Republicans in the over-65 vote, which then proceeded to break 53-45 Republican in 2008, 59-38 in 2010, and 56-44 in 2012 (Democrats also won the 45-64 vote in 2006, before narrowly losing it narrowly in 2008 and a bit less narrowly in 2010). Unless Democrats can do something to change the typical mid-term composition of the electorate, or can boost their percentage among older and whiter voters, 2014 does not look good. And FWIW, not only will the 2010-2012 redistricting continue to protect the GOP’s House majority, the Senate landscape isn’t much better than it was this year (20 Democratic seats are up, compared to just 13 Republicans, and 7 of the Democrats are in states carried by Romney; just one Republican–Susan Collins–is from a state carried by Obama).

On top of everything else, second-term midterms are normally a disaster for the party controlling the White House (look at what happened in 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986, and 2006), though one of the very few exceptions ever was pretty recent, in 1998.

I’m not trying to provide a buzzkill for happy Democrats here, but just as it was inevitable the day after Barack Obama’s election that 2010 was going to be difficult for Democrats given the drift of older white voters towards the GOP, 2014 will be difficult as well. What we don’t exactly know at this point is whether the turnout patterns in 2012 were basically normal presidential patterns, or owed a lot to heroic Democratic GOTV efforts given the voter-discouragement that would have normally accompanied (a) bad economic times, and (b) a reversion-to-norm after the historic 2008 elections.

If it’s the latter, then Democrats had better go to school fast on those GOTV efforts and intensify them going into the midterms, or hope an improving economy or some other change in partisan dynamics give the numbers a tilt back towards the benign-to-Democrats breakdowns of 2006. The best news for Democrats is that Republicans, for all the talk of them “learning lessons” from 2012, do not seem inclined to change much of anything between now and then beyond cosmetics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.