The 2006, 2008 and 2010 election results were not something that came out of a hat. Nor in truth may they be as unique as some suspect. Rather these results were a combination of external factors such as the prevailing political environment at the time and internal factors such as turnout. It is turnout that this article will focus on. Fewer conservatives and Independents contributed to Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 while the GOP benefited from a whiter, more conservative electorate in 2010.
Following the 2012 election many analysts missed the biggest piece of the puzzle on why Obama won. It was not the debates, it was not Hurricane Sandy, nor was it Mitt Romney’s wealth. It all came down to turnout. According to exit polls Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 7%, including many swing states, and liberal and moderate voters combined made up over 60% of the electorate. The racial make-up of the electorate was also significant. Obama won 80% of the minority vote and they made up 28% of the electorate. Young voters also made up 19% of the electorate (up from 18% in 2008).
This stands in stark contrast to the 2010 electorate. According to exit polls the midterm electorate was 78% white, 35% Republican and Democrat and 29% Independent. Moreover, the electorate was over 40% conservative and liberals made up barely 20% of the vote. Not surprisingly, this electorate swung the House to the GOP and ended the Democrats filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
These differing electorates have had a significant impact on politics. Democrats have tried to appeal to a more liberal, urban, and majority minority party. Republicans have become more conservative and thus appealing to an ageing, white electorate. American politics since the dawn of the 21st century was dysfunctional, compromise a dirty word. But the appealing to groups with extremely differing ideologies has only made addressing the country’s problems worse.
A highlight of this phenomena would be the debate over Immigration Reform. Both Democrats and Republicans know that it needs to get done. However, both parties have drastically differing views on how to get this done. They have these views because of their different constituencies. Their constituencies differing views on the issue have pulled both parties far apart from each other. Republicans favor a guest worker program and a secure the border first approach. Democrats favor border security in a limited fashion but also amnesty for all illegals.
At a structural electorate level these differing electorates have given both parties different bases of strength in government. The shift in urban and suburban voters support to Democrats has allowed them to win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. These urban and suburban voters tend to turn out more often in Presidential elections as they are younger and more diverse. The shift in this support however has not stopped the GOP from winning the House popular vote between 1992 and 2012 seven out of ten times. Thus the GOP finds its base of support in the House and Democrats at the Presidential level.
This, along with differing ideologies and constituencies has further fed an adversarial level to American politics. Republicans seem almost obligated to oppose a Democratic President while a Democratic Senate seems obligated to defend and support his policy initiatives. Sean Trende, writing in his new novel says the future of American politics remains completely up for grabs. He is fully accurate. For while both parties can lay claim to different bases of support and constituencies neither side can say their supporters can defeat the others in any given election.
As evidenced by the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, there are more Democrats than Republicans in this country and not enough Republican leaning independents to make up the difference for the GOP. But as 2010 showed the GOP’s base of support is whiter, more rural, and more importantly, more consistent voters. Until Democrats find a way to get their voters to the polls consistently they are at a structural disadvantage in House races. Republicans struggles with minority and young voters has them at a disadvantage in the electoral college.
But while political competition is a good for the country it has continued to further polarize the nation. Unified control of government gave the GOP the Patriot Act, Medicaid Part D and Afghanistan and Iraq. It gave Democrats Financial Reform, Healthcare Reform and Student Loan nationalization. Divided government has simply given the country gridlock. While some may prefer gridlock to unified government they tend to be partisans and even they acknowledge this country needs to fix its problems. But differing electorates with vastly differing views on how to fix the country’s problems are not making it easy.