The mid-term elections of 2006 are over, but the arguments continue. Democrats have gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for the first time since the early years of Bill Clinton’s first term as President. This condition quite naturally has convinced Democrats and Liberals that America now prefers their leadership to that of the Republicans and Conservatives. The Republicans and Conservatives contend that the election was the result of a combination of Democrat misportrayal of their policies and ideals, and public disgust of the Republican failure to deliver promised reforms. Each side claims that the other is doomed to irrelevancy and a loss of position in government. It now appears to me that such prophets are unaware of the demographics.
Demographics is one of those fancy words people use when they want to sound smart, and that includes me at times. Put plainly, the study of demographics is just studying who the people are and what they believe. Those beliefs are the ideals and values they hold, and those determine which party serves them best. Knowing the trends of demographic behavior helps show which party has the most potential “turf” for election contests, and suggests the strategies necessary to win control of the government.
Two notions which are over-used and subject to rational challenge, are the notion or denial of a “mandate”, and the belief that any one election makes a change which cannot be undone. The data from past elections shows that every election is a mandate of a sort, though never an absolute one, and that the public always reserves the right to change its mind. A big part of the problem is that more and more, the public perceives elected officials as alien to the public norm; candidates always appear to be people of relative wealth and influence, which is no surprise given what is needed to endure a campaign, but it also creates a separation from the public and their elected officials. While no one seriously wants a person of only average intelligence, ideals, and ability to be in charge, there is a great mistrust of a class of persons who appear to not have direct experience of real world conditions. People who never appear to deal with rush hour traffic, physical work and the sheer aggravation of government bureaucracy, are not seen as completely able to address the concerns and needs of ordinary people. This condition is well-known by politicians, which has primarily led to a flood of commercials every election showing the candidate as a regular guy – who just happens to be rich, in perfect physical shape and who thinks his management of the bureaucracy will solve many problems.
As a result of this mistrust, there is a limit to how many people will vote each election cycle. Only a part of the public is eligible to vote, and of those only some will register to vote. And only some of the pool of registered voters will vote in a given election. Many consultants are hired every election to find a way to get desired voters to the polls. Getting sixty percent of the popular vote is considered a landslide, which should tell you how difficult it is to win a majority at all. Generally, either a Republican or Democrat can expect to collect between 35 and 55 percent of a vote, depending on the nominal characteristics of the district or state in which they are running. This can be altered by either drawing in a higher portion of your own “base”, or by convincing your opponent’s base to stay home somewhat. Nick Lampson, for example, won the 22nd Congressional District race in a heavily Republican district, by motivating his base while the Democrats worked hard to dismay the Republicans from supporting the write-in candidate, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. The Democrats managed this election by not only motivating their base, but also by depressing Republican turnout.
Polls, as we know, can be misleading if the results are manipulated rather than viewed in context. Among the myths being presented this year are claims that Republicans voted for Democrats rather than staying home, or that Independents showed up in large numbers and swayed the elections. The best way, I think, to sort out such claims is to look not only at the claims, but the hard numbers.
Let’s start with an important number from 2004; more than 62 million American voters chose to re-elect President George W. Bush. That sets a standard; while midterm elections generally produce a much lower turnout than elections in Presidential election years, 2004 establishes an important benchmark. The Census Bureau noted that turnout in 2004 was the highest in U.S. elections since 1968, and a four-point jump in overall participation from 2000, which itself showed strong turnout on both sides.
Between 1978 and 2004, on average 62.9 percent of eligible citizens vote in Presidential election years, versus 48.5 percent in mid-term elections. For registered voters in that same time frame, 72.3 percent vote in Presidential election years and 67.6 percent vote in mid-term. So for starters, people who keep up their registration are more likely to vote than people who have to be motivated to renew their registration. It also suggests that about 48 million Republicans would reasonably expect to vote in the 2006 election under nominal conditions. George Mason’s numbers show national voter turnout at the 39% level, far below expectations and a salient factor in the possibility that a specific sector of the demographic could sway the election results on the national scale.
Using CNN’s exit poll results for the 2004 and 2006 House of Representative national voting sample, the demographic numbers did not change much at all. The 2004 balance of party identification seems to have been the key; Democrats kept their share of the vote at 38%, but Democrats who only voted for their party 90% of the time in 2004, did so 93% of the time in 2006. A small measure, but it could make the difference in tight races. Also worth noting was the decline in GOP voting. Republicans declined slightly, representing 38% of voters in 2004 but only 36% in 2006. Voting by Conservatives also dropped by two points, indicating that the stay-at-homes were conservative Republicans, which would explain why votes for Democrats by Republicans rose from 7% in 2004 to 8% in 2006. Again, each of these is a small matter, except that they add up. Self-described Moderates increased their share to 47% in 2006, up 2 points from the 45% they represented in 2004. Those moderates swung more to the Left, voting 56% for Democrats in 2004 but 60% in 2006.
The real key is to understand that the voter pool for 2006 was not static from 2004, but dropped significantly. CNN noted that 11% of voters in 2004 said they were voting for the first time, but they showed no results this time, which is consistent with a voter pool largely disillusioned and inclined to give this round a miss. For all effective counting, more than a third of 2004’s voters stayed home in 2006, from both parties and all ideologies. This election came down to three factors which played against the Republicans:
Most open seats were Republican, and the most incumbent seats at risk were Republican;
The Democrats were largely unified in purpose, while some leading Conservatives advocated abandoning Republican candidates; and
The Mainstream Media made a hard push against Republicans, as exemplified by highlighted focus on DeLay and Foley, who had each already resigned, while ignoring in-office criminals like William Jefferson and Harry Reid.
I would like to say that this was a one-time aberration, but instead it’s more of a wake-up call. Democrats proved they could win by uniting on a common theme, using the media to their advantage, and protecting fellow party members from loss. Fortunately for Republicans, the Democrats have shown no inclination to correct deep-seated errors in their strategy and focus, the nation is significantly more conservative than liberal, and Democrat blunders and quick moves to increase taxes and abandon duty in the Middle East are already making ripples in the national opinion; Pelosi burned the honeymoon early on, and the dealmakers have shown the Democrats for frauds, to talk about reform when in fact they intended only to improve their graft technique. The Republicans have lessons to learn, but presuming they do so now, the damage to be done by the Left may be, if not prevented, at least repaired somewhat later.