23 November 2010

David P. Hamilton : Parsing the Midterms: A Progressive Exodus

Political cartoon by Mike Keefe / inToon.com.

2010 Elections:
Where the votes came from
and how the Dems lost big
My hypothesis is that most of the excess decline in support for Democratic Party congressional candidates in 2010 was from political progressives of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / November 23, 2010

Was the performance of the Democratic Party congressional candidates uniquely bad in the 2010 midterm election? If so, why was that the case?

Composite of U.S. House of Representatives elections, 1990-2010
Year / Democratic...Republican...Independent...Libertarian...Green...Total...%
1992 / 48,550,096...43,498,015...1,255,726...848,614...134,072...97,198,316...50.8
1994 / 31,542,823...36,325,809...497,403...415,944...40,177...70,493,648...36.6
1996 / 43,393,580...43,120,872...572,746...651,448...113,773...90,233,467...45.8
1998 / 31,391,834...31,983,612...372,072...880,024...70,932...66,604,802...32.9
2000 / 46,411,559...46,750,175...683,098...1,610,292...279,158...98,799,963...46.3
2002 / 33,642,142...37,091,270...403,670...1,030,171...286,962...74,706,555...34.3
2004 / 52,745,121...55,713,412...674,202...1,040,465...331,298...113,192,286...51.4
2006 / 42,082,311...35,674,808...417,895...657,435...234,939...80,975,537...35.7
2008 / 64,888,090...51,952,981...729,798...1,083,096...570,780...122,586,293...52.3*
2010 / 35,377,756...41,128,504...79,500,000*...33.7*

% refers to the percentage of eligible voters who voted.
* estimates based on unofficial figures.

Observations based on the above

1. The percentage participation in U.S. House midterm elections has not changed significantly over the past 20 years, ranging from a low of 33.1 in 1990 to a high of 36.6 in 1994. 2010 was toward the lower end of this narrow spectrum at 33.7%.

2. The percentage drop off in total voter turnout from a presidential year to the following midterm: 1992/94 - 14.2%, 1996/98 – 12.9%, 2000/02 – 12.0%, 2004/06 – 15.7%, 2008/10 – 18.6% *(est). The average drop off in the four election cycles preceding 2008/2010 was 13.7%. Hence, the 2008/10 drop off exceeded the recent average percentage drop by 36%. On the other hand, the 2008 turnout was the highest in decades. These totals include supporters of all parties.

3. The percentage decline of total votes for Democratic congressional candidates from presidential to midterm elections in each cycle: 1992/94 – 35%, 1996/98 – 28%, 2000/02 – 27.5%, 2004/06 – 20%, 2008/10 – 45.5%. The drop off in support for Democratic Party congressional candidates in the 2010 midterm election was historically very high, reversing a trend toward less of a drop off and more than doubling the percentage drop off from the preceding cycle.

The numerical drop in votes for Democratic congressional candidates in the 2008/10 cycle was even more striking, 29.5 million votes. That compares to drops of 17 million in 1992/94, 12 million in 1996/98, 12.8 million in 2000/02, and 10.7 million in 2004/06. Considering the long term downward trend in the drop during each cycle, I estimate that 18-20 million more Democratic Party voters didn’t vote in 2010 compared to what historical trends would have predicted.

Other observations

4. According to estimates from several sources, the youth vote (under 30) dropped from 18% of voters in 2008 (.18 x 122,586,293 = 22,065,533) to 9% in 2010 (.09 x 79,500,000* = 7,115,000). That represents a decline of 68%. It is estimated that 58% of this vote went for Obama in 2008. Hence, if this percentage held constant in both 2008 and 2010, Democrats received 12.8 million youth votes in 2008 and 4.1 in the 2010 election. A more normal drop of 30% would have given the Democrats close to 9 million youth votes in 2010. Hence, Democrats lost nearly 5 million of their excess vote decline in 2010 among youth.

5. African-American vote. One estimate was that it dropped from 13% of the total vote in 2008 (15,868,500) to 10% in 2010 (7,950,000), a numerical drop of nearly 8 million and a percentage drop of roughly 50%. But 2008 represented a historic high in African American voter turnout. They represent roughly 10% of eligible voters. Hence, their turnout was more normal than in 2008. Still, if their turnout decline had been more like 30%, the Democrats would have received nearly 3 million more votes.

6. Latino vote. Commentaries so far indicate that the Latino vote was larger than expected and underestimated by pre-election polls. Democrats won this vote in congressional races by almost two to one, but Latino Republicans won governorships in Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida. Still, while it doubtless did decline numerically from 2008, it is reasonable to say that the Latino vote did not contribute to the excess Democratic decline.

7. Gay/lesbian vote. According to the Huffington Post, “Democrats' share of the gay vote rose from 75 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2008 and then dropped to 68 percent in 2010. Each year, approximately 3 percent of voters identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.” Assuming that this is a very conservative estimate of the gay/lesbian vote, there were at least 2.5 million gay/lesbian voters in 2010 and 3.75 million in 2008. Hence, in 2008, the Democrats received about 3 million gay/lesbian votes and in 2010 they received just over 1.6 million, a decline of 48%. A more normal drop off of 30% would have given the Democrats more than a half million more gay/lesbian votes.

8. Women’s vote. I can’t find a source on percentages and numbers for women’s turnout in 2010. Democrats generally enjoy a “gender gap” among women voters of 7-8% on average. One commentary had independent white women voters switching markedly from Democrat to Republican in 2010. If women represented 55% of the voters and the Democrats enjoyed the normal advantage, they would have received nearly 24 million women’s votes in 2010. The actual total was more like 19 million, an excess decline of nearly 5 million.

Who were the 18-20 million who voted for Democrats in 2008 and given historical trends were expected to vote for them in 2010, but didn’t show up? We have seen that roughly 5 million of them were among youth, another 5 million were women voters, 3 million were African Americans voters, and at most a million were gay/lesbian voters. Since all those groups overlap, we have probably only accounted for 10-12 million missing voters. Where are the rest?

My hypothesis is that most of the excess decline in support for Democratic Party congressional candidates in 2010 was from political progressives of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. Most of the Left came out for Obama and the related Democrats in 2008 and most stayed home in 2010.

I know at least a dozen people within a block of my house who worked hard for Obama and the Democrats in 2008 and didn’t vote in 2010, often purposefully. They stayed home as a result of dissatisfaction with Obama’s leadership, his concessions to the corporate capitalist class, and the inadequacies of Democratic Party accomplishments since 2008. I would further speculate that many also stayed home out of sheer disgust with the whole American political system.

In brief, the nexus of the excess drop in votes for Democrats was the Left. They provided legions of foot soldiers in 2008 and in 2010 they pulled out of the system altogether, often consciously. A comment on my recent Rag Blog article ["'Citizens United' and the Corruption of American Politics"] said, “Not voting is voting.” I agree. As the Tea Party is the energy driving the Republicans, it is the Left in all its permutations that propels the Democrats. This time, their message was that they wouldn’t support Democrats who too much resemble Bush-lite.

Another major factor operating in this election is the Rovian strategy, which emphasizes base mobilization and recognizes that the middle is largely a myth, especially in off-year elections. It has been validated by the overall results of the 2010 elections, despite the fact that the most inept Tea Party candidates exceeded the strategy’s potential. This is more and more the principal electoral strategy of Republicans.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are still following the old strategy of moving to the middle, based on the false assumption that the electorate is some kind of bell curve with most people grouped in the middle. In this manner, they loose touch with their own base. The only solution for the Democrats is to also adopt a more Rovian strategy, becoming actually progressive, i.e. more class conscious, to better mobilize their base.

Unfortunately, the paradox for the Democrats is that their source of funds pushes them in directions that alienate them from their base. And every indication is that Barack Obama, having spent most of his life trying not to look like an angry black man, is fundamentally unable to make such a transition.

[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the late 1960s when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin's underground newspaper.]

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