02 August 2011

Is there an independent presidential electorate?

An article by Andrew Hacker in the latest New York Review of Books puts the competing mandates of President Obama and Speaker Boehner in perspective, but the statistics may not be comforting for Democrats. Hacker points out that Obama received more than 69,000,000 votes in 2008, while all Republican congressional candidates combined, including the losers, received about 44.5 million votes in 2010. His point isn't that Obama has more legitimacy than the Republicans, since he accepts Larry Sabato's dictum that "every election is determined by the people who show up." For Hacker, the notable fact about 2010 was that so many of Obama's voters did not show up to vote for Democratic congressional candidates. All Democratic candidates combined received a little less than 39 million votes last November -- little more than 60% of Obama's 2008 tally. Total turnout for the 2010 elections added up to not quite 41% of eligible citizens, while nearly 62% came out for the last presidential vote. While some people who voted for Obama probably ended up voting for a Republican congressional candidate, the fact that Senator McCain in 2008 outpolled all GOP congressional candidates of 2010 combined indicates that most of the approximately 40% of Obama voters lost to Democrats two years later didn't defect, but disappeared.

Hacker notes that the voting-eligible population can be split three ways, 40% voting fairly regularly, 40% never voting and 20% voting almost exclusively in presidential election years. The difference between the 2008 and 2010 results suggests that the presidential electorate -- the 20% group, doesn't form strong partisan loyalties. The Obama campaign is credited with bringing out a lot of new voters, but many of those didn't bother voting in 2010. Hacker suggests that Democrats failed to strongly identify their party cause with Obama's in these neophyte voters' minds. "Since Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballots, they would have to be shown that it was important to show up, and then find and mark boxes for some Democrats whose names probably meant little or nothing to them," he writes, "In theory, people who had lost their jobs or had homes foreclosed would have good reason to go to the polls. But for many if not most of them, voting hasn’t been part of their lives. It’s easy to say that they could be got to the polls if a phalanx of volunteers sought them out. But that kind of drive rarely gets underway in midterm years."

By comparison, many Republican voters "had their own reasons for voting" in 2010. That is, they were self-motivated in ways that much of the Obama constituency wasn't. Ironically, Hacker suggests that many 2010 Republicans had not bothered to vote for McCain in 2008. Demographically speaking, the 2010 congressional electorate differed starkly from the previous presidential electorate; Hacker states that 2010 voters tended to be older, more ideological and more likely white, and notes that had the 2008 electorate shared this demographic profile, McCain would be President today.

The New York Review teased Hacker's article on its front cover as a report on "The Surprising 2012 Election," as if it had already happened. The surprise, from the perspective of July 2011, is that Hacker, while not predicting Obama's re-election with certainty, feels that the incumbent has an inherent advantage over his Republican challengers. That advantage is the predictable reappearance of the presidential electorate, which skews younger, more female, more ethnically diverse and less ideological -- or at least less avowedly conservative -- than the 2010 electorate. Hacker suspects that Republican leaders are making a strategic mistake by playing to the 2010 electorate when they'll have to answer to a presumably quite different electorate next year. While Hacker notes Republican efforts at the state level to repress voter turnout through a variety of election-law "reforms," he clearly believes that the inherent difference of the presidential electorate will likely render all such efforts futile -- though it would also help if Obama grew more confrontational toward Republican "economic royalists" and "do-nothings" as FDR and Truman were in the Democratic golden age.

But if Obama is re-elected, Hacker implies that the Democratic party won't benefit for long. If the exclusively presidential electorate can't be motivated to vote in congressional elections, any congressional gains the Democracy might make on Obama's coattails in 2012 could be lost as soon as two years later. In this sense, Hacker's analysis might partly prove Maureen Dowd's otherwise dubious assertion that Barack Obama is an "independent" President, if his rising tide fails to lift all Democratic boats. Hacker himself makes an unusual assertion while discussing the GOP that "for practical purposes, national parties have ceased to exist." What he means is that, as has been true for decades now, party bosses can no longer dictate a presidential nominee at the national convention. The choice is made ahead of time at the primaries, but is determined, Hacker implies, not by rank-and-file voters but by the big fundraising organizations like American Crossroads. And if the ultimate choice in November is made by an essentially non-partisan presidential electorate (partisanship presumably being verified by a readiness to vote in congressional elections), the relevance of partisanship to the Presidency might plausibly be questioned. But if the core presidential electorate, the decisive 20% who vote at no other time, don't vote according to partisan habit, could they be reached by or won over to a candidate who isn't a traditional partisan? My unhappy gut feeling is that the presidential electorate still makes brand-name judgments, but if Hacker's hunch is right, then it might not be a mistake after all for independents to aim for the top rather than start from the bottom.

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