The Midterm/Presidential Disconnect

It’s natural to have mixed feelings when an acknowledged expert calmly expresses something you’ve been howling about in the wilderness for a long time. But I’m actually grateful to Ron Brownstein for succinctly describing the circumstances that now make midterm elections and presidential elections so very different:

Republicans have a problem with young voters. Democrats have a problem with young nonvoters.

That simple equation, which applies equally to minority voters, helps explain why Republicans could enjoy another strong midterm election in 2014 without solving any of the underlying demographic challenges that threaten them in the 2016 presidential race. Next year’s election could both disappoint Democrats (by frustrating their hope of recapturing the House) and mislead Republicans (by tempting them to believe they have overcome the trends that allowed Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.) It could also highlight one of the forces that is making it difficult for either party to sustain unified control over Washington, even as they struggle to reach consensus on almost anything while power is divided.

These intertwined risks and opportunities are rooted in a new twist on a familiar phenomenon. The familiar part is the tendency of young and, more recently, minority voters to turn out in smaller numbers during midterms than in presidential elections. The new twist is that changing voting patterns have vastly raised the partisan stakes in those participation trends, creating systematic challenges for Democrats in midterm elections and for the GOP in presidential years.

The “new twist” is the sudden and unprecedented alignment of the groups most and least likely to turn out in midterms with the two major political parties. As Brownstein points out, Democrats used to pretty regularly overperform with older white voters in midterms, mainly because these voters were inclined to split tickets between presidential and congressional candidates. That hasn’t been happening so much lately, since ticket-splitting is down quite significantly.

None of this is terribly secret, but a lot of partisans prefer to ignore it (and that’s understandable: structural factors take much of the fun out of politics). But the consequences of doing so are real, as evidenced by Democratic over-reaction to the Obama Coalition of 2008 followed by Republican over-reaction to their 2010 landslide, to which the turnout patterns we’ve been talking about contributed heavily. And beyond that, as Brownstein points out, the midterm/presidential disconnect, which we ought to think of as creating two separate electorates, certainly increases the odds of divided partisan control of government:

The falloff in minority and youth off-year voting, combined with the tendency of the modern Democratic coalition to center on big cities, provide a structural edge to Republicans in the battle to control the House. But the demographic trends enlarging the Democrats’ “coalition of the ascendant” offer them an ongoing advantage at the presidential level. The problem is that these tectonic forces are pushing toward divided government precisely as the parties are displaying ever-less ability to make it work.

One is tempted to say, with John Dos Passos: All right we are two nations.
That would go too far, but we do have two electorates, and that matters.

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.