Why Voter Turnout Mattered in the Midterms

Image courtesy of Reuters

Image courtesy of Reuters

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The Republican Party’s massive sweep earlier this month of U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections cut across nearly all the geographic boundaries and traditional regional lines. Republicans not only consolidated their edge in the normally red areas of the red states, but the GOP also made inroads almost everywhere we have been told were now safe havens for Democratic candidates—Maryland and West Virginia, to name just two striking examples.

Ahead of the midterms, there was much talk about the anti-incumbency mood around the country. This anti-Washington fever has been building, made worse by what many Americans see as a pointless combination of petty squabbling, name-calling, and simple gridlock. President Obama and Congress can rarely agree on anything.

But to the surprise of many analysts and journalists, the midterm outcomes were more startling and potentially game-changing than was predicted. The GOP, presumed to be on the path to a slow death by the forces of shifting demographics and self-immolation, rebounded—exceeding even the wildest expectations of its own pollsters and strategists. Those GOP incumbents thought to be the most at risk proved easy winners. Mitch McConnell’s comfortable, early victory in Kentucky served as political weather warning for the remainder of that long Tuesday night and sleepless (for some) Wednesday morning. It was Democrats, nearly everywhere, that were in trouble that night.

Hardest hit, or so it seemed, were those Congressional and state candidates who had so openly and brazenly fled from President Obama, seeking instead to soak up some of the political strength and aura of Hillary Clinton instead—presumed front-runner for the presidency in 2016. That night would prove to be one of the worst for the Clinton brand name ever, as more than a dozen House and Senate hopefuls lost to Republicans in races that should have been close, closer, and cinches for easy wins. Only in New Hampshire did the Clinton franchise help a half dozen state candidates—mostly women—to victory. Clinton may be able to shake-off the dust and debris, but by campaigning alongside so many losing candidates, she has inadvertently handed the GOP the marketing tools they need to show she is not inevitable. Worse, she may have clumsily invited other Democrats to openly challenge her in primaries and caucuses—something unthinkable only six weeks ago.

For Democrats, there was a problem. A loss that Tuesday in some of those states was probably inevitable—the result of predictable dips in the approval rating and popularity of the President. The sixth year of two-term chief executives is often their worst, and the midterms will reliably reflect that voter angst and frustration. But in this case, Democrats clearly expected some gains, and seemed genuinely unprepared for the vast red landslide that ensued on Election Day. Republicans may not be winning the popularity contest—at least according to the exit polls conducted across the country—but Democrats aren’t winning the hearts and minds of the voters either. Even the President’s dismal popularity, coupled with a relentless, mostly nationwide strategy by GOP candidates to run a lot of campaign ads linking Democrats to Obama, does not go far enough to explain the Democrat’s catastrophe in November.

Then there were those cases of independent candidates challenging Republicans—most notably in Kansas where Greg Orman mounted a decidedly outside-of-the-box campaign to oust longtime Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican with a deep polling deficit only months before the election. So eager were Democrats to dislodge Roberts, they forced their own duly-nominated party loyalist out and began campaigning full throttle for the independent Orman—this, even as Orman steadfastly refused to make any commitments about which party he would caucus with once in Washington. But even this gambit failed. Roberts won easily, and Orman gets to go back to his business interests in the Sunflower State.

Now, the shocker for many readers: Republicans managed to win, and win big, but they didn’t outspend Democrats nationally. In fact, most of the so-called “tight” races saw spending which was more-or-less equal between the major candidates and their big-spending backers. In Florida, for example, Charlie Crist and his legion of big-money donors spent about the same amount that was spent by Rick Scott and his GOP allies.

And other than some accusations about electronic vote count shenanigans in Colorado (more about that later), there were no complaints about stolen votes, hanging chads, mishandled computers, or hacked registrars’ offices. Even the contentious narrative about voter suppression didn’t come into play this year: Democrats lost so badly in some states that poor voter turnout, in the form of disinterest and even rejection, was clearly the catalyst for the party’s disaster at the polls. The party that had clearly won a major victory—thanks largely to smart, savvy voter participation—only two years ago, was now left powerless in the face of sea of political disengagement.

The worst turnout levels were in Indiana, Texas, Utah and New York. This is a paradox, since Democrats like to generally make a direct correlation between educational achievement and high voter participation. Why did New York end the day with the fourth lowest turnout? Indiana is a swing state, crucial to both Republicans and Democrats. Yet it came in dead last, with a miserly 28 percent turnout. Utah and Texas are decidedly red states.

Colorado had the fourth best turnout in the country, in part—some analysts believe—because it converted to an entirely mail-in ballot process, one of only two states in which the majority of ballots are mailed-in (Oregon is the other). Only Maine, Wisconsin and Alaska had better turnouts than Colorado and Oregon.

Back some months ago, in April to be specific, Thursday Review received a few strongly-worded emails from several of our liberal readers and followers regarding our article entitled “Turnout Trumps Spending.”

Here at TR we had expressed the unmitigated, immoderate view that voter turnout still carries a wallop, and that concerns about spending often unfairly receive the lion’s share of attention. One need look no further than the presidential elections of 2012 to see how this can play out: strategists for both the Obama and the Romney campaigns had each concluded—correctly—that the election would hinge upon turnout, especially in several key counties and metro areas in Ohio and Florida. Both parties spent record millions in those TV markets, but both parties exerted even more firepower on making sure people went to the polls. A mountain range-sized pile of cash is not enough if your people don’t show up to vote.

Turnout is traditionally higher in a year in which there are presidential candidates on the ballot. By contrast, turnout can dip to lower levels during those off-years in between the presidential cycles. Turnout in 2014 was very low, the lowest in fact in more than 70 years. For both the 20th and 21st centuries, this year’s 36.3 percent was the lowest since the record-breaker low-water-mark of 1942.

The New York Times, in an editorial a week after the 2014 midterms, saw it as a two-pronged problem. “Republicans ran a single-theme campaign of pure opposition to President Obama,” said the Times, “and Democrats were too afraid of the backlash to put forward plans to revive the economy or to point out significant achievements of the last six years.”

The Times view is a reasonable interpretation, perhaps, but it does not go far enough to explain the political vortex that occurred that Tuesday.

If voters were genuinely disgusted with both parties, as so much of the media seemed to suggest (based on pre-election polling and exit polling) why didn’t the GOP suffer a more serious setback itself? Libertarian, independent, and other third party candidates should have seen a significant spike in interest from voters shopping for alternatives to the two mainstream options. Voters in Florida could choose between several well-funded third party options, including Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, yet widespread disgust at the negative campaigns of Scott and Crist drove few voters toward these non-traditional options. Likewise, significant third party movements in North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia failed to become the decisive disruptors widely predicted in advance. And in the aforementioned Kansas, Orman’s independent candidacy not only failed to trigger the ouster of Roberts, but may have expedited the collapse of a rare opportunity for Democrats to deny the GOP its traditional lock on Kansas’s representation in Washington. Further, despite some pre-election talk that Libertarian Gaylon Kent would make a numerical difference in Colorado’s closely-watched U.S. Senate election, in the end Kent grabbed only about 2.6% of the vote—not enough to have altered the outcome.

Only in Vermont did a Libertarian candidate muster enough voter support to temporarily rock the system, where Dan Feliciano, running for governor under the Libertarian banner, denied both Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Scott Milne a clear majority (under Vermont law, the General Assembly must choose the next governor in January; since the Assembly is made up of a majority of Democrats, and because Shumlin’s final tally places him slightly ahead of Milne, Shumlin is expected to be declared the victor by the Assembly unless Milne concedes).

But what about the aforementioned Colorado, where—contrary to recent voter behavior—there was a unusual disconnect between the results for governor and the results for Colorado’s widely-watched U.S. Senate race? One of the GOP’s most famous victories came at the expense of incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Udall. Udall, who had run one of the most unabashedly liberal campaigns, lost to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. Udall had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and his positions on issues ranging from the Hobby Lobby case to his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline put him at odds with many voters in Colorado—a state often called a “battleground” by CNN and Fox News for its sometimes pivotal importance in the Electoral College. In recent years Colorado was widely thought to be moving leftward, but Udall’s defeat at the hands of Gardner may indicate that the Centennial State is not as liberal as some had thought.

Gardner won by 48.3 percent to Udall’s 46.2 percent—close, but not necessarily the cliffhanger some thought the race might have become. Tuesday’s early, wide vote count leads by Gardner made it appear that he might win in a blowout, but late-arriving returns from Denver and Adams counties—Democratic strongholds—denied Gardner his landslide, but did not deprive him of a safe win. Besides, late-arriving vote tallies from urban areas often produce final results that seem to skew or alter the trajectory of early returns. Still, Gardner’s victory was in keeping with national patterns that night: often, as the Senate went (and that was generally red), so went key U.S. House, state legislature, and gubernatorial races. The GOP benefited from this “group coattails” effect.

But, conversely, Coloradans re-elected Governor John Hickenlooper. As in most states, the GOP had waged a robust challenge to Hickenlooper, linking him to Obamacare, questioning his position on gun control, and berating him for his decision to grant a reprieve to an infamous death row inmate, Nathan Duncan, who was convicted of killing four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Despite this, Hickenlooper survived and defeated his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, albeit only after a particularly long night of vote counting.

Though there was only scant reporting of the problem in the Colorado press, and even less discussion nationally, there were concerns throughout that long Tuesday over what appeared to be repeated attempts by someone—or some group—to hack into the state’s voting system. Election Day volunteers, student volunteers, poll watchers, employees and elections supervisors were aware of the cyber-attacks, but were also informed that the state’s computer security people were on top of the situation. Despite an effort to outflank the hackers, a decision was reached in the early afternoon to briefly shut-down the entire statewide system, then perform a basic reboot—with all vote numbers up to that point locked-in. At around 2:00 p.m., the shutdown/reboot took place. When technicians brought the system back online about 20 minutes later, a strange thing had happened: John Hickenlooper had suddenly and mysteriously gained approximately 25,000 votes. Though it would have been theoretically impossible for anyone to have cast or counted votes during that 20 minutes, somehow thousands of votes appeared in Hickenlooper’s column. There were questions about vote shenanigans, though no one really knew where to look for answers, or how to sort out what had just happened.  Colorado’s mail-in ballots were being counted by machines, and there was easy way to resolve the sudden anomaly.

The governor’s race remained a squeaker through the long night, but by the next morning—with Hickenlooper’s lead growing—those mysterious 25,000 votes mattered less and less to reporters. In the end, the governor would claim his re-election by about 52,000 votes statewide. It remains to be seen whether anyone in the Colorado GOP—or any independent watchdog group—intends to demand a closer look at what happened that afternoon and evening in Colorado.

The general view is that Coloradans split their allegiances in ways that did not reflect the national voting patterns—anomalous, perhaps, but not unheard of. The Greeley Tribune pointed out that a switch of only 30,000 votes statewide would have shifted the outcome of either of Colorado’s big races—Hickenlooper versus Beauprez, or Udall versus Gardner. Another theory, assuming that there was no meddling with the vote totals in the governor’s race, is that Hickenlooper—unlike many of his Democratic brethren in House and Senate races nationwide—used his perceived centrism to effectively distance himself from President Obama. For most Democrats the strategy did not work; in Hickenlopper’s case it appears to have succeeded.

Finally, there is the case of Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich conceded only as recently as Monday night, calling to congratulate Republican Dan Sullivan nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Despite most media and election groups calling it a victory for Sullivan as early as last week, Begich stubbornly held onto the notion that recounts might turn the final count in his favor. The Alaska Board of Elections show that Sullivan defeated Begich by roughly 7700 votes—a razor close number in many states, but by the low population standards found in Alaska, a comfortable 2.8 percent victory.

Why did Begich wait so long to concede what most observers considered a done deal? Begich himself first won his U.S. Senate seat only after patient and painstaking recounts in 2008—an election in which he apparently trailed incumbent Ted Stevens until every stray vote was finally counted…nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Back then, Begich won by mere 4000 votes.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/VoterTurnout2014.html#sthash.Qj1OTNdK.dpuf

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