More on Democrats’ Mid-Term “Fall-off” Problem

As regular readers know, I rant regularly about the well-known but often ignored problem of the “two electorates”–one large and relatively diverse that votes in presidential years, one significantly smaller, older and whiter that votes in midterms. Because the two electorates are suddenly very closely aligned with the two parties’ voting coalitions, it’s a bigger deal than ever, and a big problem for Democratic in 2014 that cannot be blithely outsourced to GOTV “nerds” who will magically change the historic patterns.

My friend the political scientist Tom Schaller, bless his empirically trained heart, has done a post for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball that makes the case better than I have: with charts showing the history of the midterm “fall-off,” and with a discussion of the practical limits of GOTV in solving the problem. Anyone who cares about elections should read the whole thing, but here are two key graphs:

“There is little to nothing Democrats can do to mitigate the drop-off of turnout among their core constituencies that regularly happens — like a clock — when moving from presidential to midterm elections. Indeed, the primary way to stimulate midterm voters who do vote to support Democrats will not be present in 2014: a poorly performing Republican president that Democrats can rally against (e.g., Bush 2006 or Nixon 1974),” George Mason University’s Michael McDonald, one of the nation’s foremost experts on electoral turnout, explained to me via email. “The first step for Democrats is to prevent 2014 from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy by recruiting quality candidates to run.” McDonald says Democrats will have to look to new strategies, including social media applications. “But, I caution that social media will likely not solve the Democrats’ problems since it failed to prevent the historic Republican landslide in 2010.”

I then asked Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, a critically-acclaimed book about the rising sophistication of electoral field campaign strategies and techniques, how Democrats, who presently enjoy a field mobilization advantage, might “presidentialize” midterm elections. “In the last decade, Democrats have gotten much better at using field experiments to understand the mechanics of mobilization and data to target their efforts to parts of the electorate where they can have the greatest impact. There is a persistent difference between midterm and presidential elections, though: activist engagement, especially among the volunteers who do the work of mobilization,” Issenberg said. “So we may be missing a step here. The primary challenge for Democrats may not be how to mobilize blacks and Hispanics to vote in off-year elections the way they do in presidential cycles, but how to motivate them to volunteer at those levels — because it’s that activity that we know will turn their neighbors out to vote.”

Very interesting. There is actually one other important thing Democrats could theoretically do to mitigate the impact of the midterm “fall-off”: improve their performance among older white voters. They carried 47% of over-60 white voters, and 48% of 45-59 year-old white voters, as recently as 2006 (Obama won 39% of over-60 whites, and 38% of 45-59 whites, in 2012). But given the generational resource wars and re-emergence of cultural divides, that might be a reach.

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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.