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The Pendulum Swings Back

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While we hate to interrupt the feeding frenzy over Harry Reid and Game Change, we thought the time was right for a quick, unvarnished snapshot of the current political environment and look at where we think voter turnout might be heading this fall.

Current Political Environment:

  1. The GOP is finally winning on the issues and Reid is a distraction. While Republicans must be salivating over the Harry Reid comments and backlash, we think that some consideration should be given to letting this go. Yes, it further tarnishes Congress and may further suppress Democrat turnout in November, but the rise of the GOP over the last several months has been largely due to the condition of the economy and opposition to some of the administration's policies. Take, for example, the erosion POTUS has had in his perceived handling of these three issue areas:

    Handling of Economy: 42% approve, down 14 points from a year ago.
    Foreign Policy: 47% approve, down 8 points from a year ago.
    Health Care: 41% approve, down 15 points from a year ago.

    Voters are very issue-centric these days. The Obama team and Democrats in Congress would much rather be talking about race than jobs, spending and national security.

  2. The Obama agenda and message has been spread so thin, it is almost meaningless. There is a fine line between demonstrating an aggressive, action-oriented agenda and trying to do so much that people really don't know what you've done or what you're doing. The administration appears to have tipped into the latter. Team Obama wanted to be the "anti-Bush" administration, but in doing so they may have lost a lot of momentum and meaning to any change they have generated. We will know more about public reaction in the coming months, but for the time being it appears that Obama would have been better off picking one or two signature initiatives in year one.
  3. The GOP is benefiting from the anti-incumbent sentiment, but it remains a largely hollow brand. Until the Republican party can paint a picture of its new brand image in a clear and compelling way - it remains a default party rather than a movement. Voters are being repelled from the Democrats and are only moving over to the GOP column by default. The only way to lock them in is to present a clear and compelling agenda--and that has not happened to date.
Observations on Voter Turnout for 2010:

The overall trend to the national voter turnout rate has been upward since 1980. However, there is a very obvious, consistent up-down pattern to voter turnout in presidential versus midterm elections. For example, when we separate the two types of elections and look at the trend, we see that the increase in turnout has been driven entirely by increases in turnout for Presidential-year elections. In off-years, turnout is actually down very slightly over the past 30 years. So the gap between Presidential and midterm turnout is also increasing. This is not unexpected, given the increased exposure and attention received by Presidential races over this period.

  • From 1980 - 2006, there were four Presidential elections where turnout exceeded the expected rate. In three of the four following midterm elections, turnout was again higher than expected. There were also three Presidential elections where turnout fell below the trend line. In all three of those cases, turnout was lower than the expected rate given the overall trend. Accordingly, it appears that higher turnout in a Presidential race generally leads to higher turnout in the following midterm, and vice-versa. o In the famous Gingrich-led "wave" election of 1994, overall turnout was indeed higher than both the predicted value and either the 1990 or 1998 midterms. However, this famous increase in turnout might have been predicted just by the turnout surge for Clinton's victory in 1992.
  • What does this tell us for 2010? Looking just at the trend line, the data would predict a 39.4% national turnout rate. However, knowing that turnout did exceed expectations in 2008, we'd wager that in 2010 turnout will exceed the trend and fall somewhere in 41.5%-42.5% range.
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  • Of course, in looking all elections, it's not just about how many people vote but who they vote for. And while this data says nothing about the composition of the electorate in the lower-turnout midterm years, an examination of the less-than-reliable exit polls can provide some color to these results.
  • The first thing that jumps out is that there is a strong relationship between midterm turnout and the composition of the electorate. When midterm turnout is high, it is generally because of an increase in the turnout of the base of the party that does not hold the White House. o This relationship was especially strong in 2002 and 2006, where Democrats turned out in unprecedented numbers for the midterm elections. Of course, the outcomes in those years could not be more different, with the Republicans actually picking up 8 House seats in 2002 but losing 31 in 2006. And in 1994, when Republicans picked up 54 seats, they were only 36% of voters. Other factors such as the geographic distribution of a party's turnout and the independent vote--which swung strongly against Democrats in 1994 and Republicans in 2006--are also significant factors in election outcomes.
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Our conclusion is that after one party rides a higher-turnout election into the White House, they can usually expect a corresponding wave--this time, in favor of their opponents--at the polls the following year. And the size of the midterm turnout "wave" is generally proportionate to the increase in the previous cycle's overall turnout. However, just getting the national boost to turnout in the base is not enough by itself for gains and losses in Congress: the geographic distribution of the turnout and the split among independents is also vital.

So we shouldn't be surprised when a major story after the 2010 election is the surge in Republican turnout. And as we've noted before, perhaps Obama and the Democrat's turnout spike last year was not the precursor to a sustained Democratic shift in the electorate, but rather part of the same back-and-forth pattern that caught Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2006. The current electoral environment certainly feels similarly anti-incumbent as well--not to mention recent horserace polls.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Pete Ventimiglia for their analysis and insight on turnout.