Dispelling Confusion About Turnout Patterns

As someone who writes about midterm versus presidential turnout patterns a lot, I feel the need to make the simple but somehow hard-for-certain-media-to-grasp point that of course candidates and campaigns and the economy and all sorts of factors determine election results, at least on the margins. But to hear some people, if you even mention turnout patterns and the very high certainty that they will make 2016 more pleasant than 2014 for Democrats, you are drifting into “demography as destiny” lotus-land and denying the need for the Donkey Party to work hard on its message and outreach. Here’s a good example from a piece by Justin Sink and Amie Parnes of The Hill today:

Following their disastrous showing at the polls this month, many Democrats have consoled themselves with talk of how the groups that fueled Obama’s resounding victories — namely minorities and young people — will make up a bigger slice of the electorate in two years’ time. But some fear the party is placing far too much trust in demographics, while ignoring the unique circumstances that led to Obama’s rise.

“I don’t think the Democratic Party should take anyone for granted, or should just assume that these voters are just going to back our nominee, and more importantly, going to turn out for the same level as President Obama,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.

“They’re going to need a reason and they’re going to need a message.”

No kidding. But having burned down the straw man of demography-as-destiny, Sink and Parnes proceed to act as though disparate turnout patterns were created by Barack Obama:

Obama’s victories, combined with the rising Latino population, have convinced many Democrats that the presidential map is skewing decidedly in their favor.

Yet some question whether the supposed advantages will materialize when the name at the top of the ballot isn’t Barack Obama.

A former Democratic campaign official stressed that the eventual nominee, whether Hillary Clinton or not, will need to find “new ways to energize our folks.”

That need seems particularly acute after the drubbing the party took in the midterms — dismal results due, in part, to overall turnout sliding to its lowest level since 1942.

Look, folks, this isn’t all that complicated. Midterm falloff among some minority voters (especially Latinos) and nearly all young voters is an ancient phenomenon. It’s not primarily attributable to somebody’s message insufficiently “energizing” somebody else. It has become a phenomenon of extraordinary partisan importance during the last four elections (two presidential, two midterms) because old white folks trended very strongly towards the GOP while younger and darker folks trended just as strongly towards the Donkey Party. That’s probably not going to end in 2016, and even if it does, that does not necessarily mean a bad election for Democrats (it’s at least as likely that Democrats will regain some mojo with older voters than that Republicans will decide to “betray” their base by doing the things necessary to reestablish some appeal to young and minority voters).

Noting that the familiar voter preferences of the last three elections were largely reduplicated in 2014 with differential turnout patterns producing a very different result, and projecting that forward to 2016, is solid analysis, not some act of “consolation” or rationalization. Of course Republicans have a chance to win in 2016. But pretending it’s just a matter of continuing the trend lines of 2014 is willfully ignorant.

UPDATE: Wow, guess I should feel flattered that several commenters seem to think I have a major influence on Democratic movers-and-shakers. Truth is, I’ve never met anybody who thinks “demography is destiny,” most especially my friends Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, often blamed for generating Democratic complacency in The Emerging Democratic Majority. But I have met and read quite a few people–among them about half the staff of Politico–who treat every election as a tabula rasa where everybody’s a swing voter and smart tactics and strategy and game-changing moments win out every time.

So maybe most of us agree that there are all sorts of factors, some baked into the cake and some not so much, that affect election outcomes (that was the “not complicated” idea I was advancing), and just disagree on the degree of emphasis, as commenter square1inny says. Fine. Lately I’ve been “emphasizing” the reasons Democrats would be foolish to be complacent with a demographic swing in 2016: conceding midterms will inevitably concede the ability to govern, and will also, given the disproportionate use of non-presidential elections at the state and local levels, steadily give up ground where a lot of the action is, outside gridlocked Washington. Dependence on demographics alone is folly.

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.