Friday, June 19, 2009

A Tale of Turnout

I seem to be in a Mark Twain kind of mood today (see my earlier post on Walter Cronkite). Consequently, I'm going to start this post with a quote I'm proud to borrow from Twain.

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

I've written before of my admiration for Michael Barone and his knowledge of voting trends.

So I think it is worth listening when, as we move forward into an era that seems sure to have an influence on political participation in this country that is unlike anything most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, Barone observes that "we live ... in a decade of vastly increased voter turnout."

Between 2000 and 2008, he writes, turnout went up 25% "when population went up only 8%."

And, since 1998, Barone reports, turnout has gone up 20% in House elections.

This, Barone points out, does not happen frequently. "To find three consecutive [presidential] elections in which the percentage increase in turnout each time was larger, you have to go back to the three contests between 1928 and 1936," he writes.

A critical factor in the equation appears to be polarization in our politics. "We lament it," Barone writes, "but it inspires many people to go to the polls." Indeed it does.

Barone also mentions party organization. "Both Republican and Democratic strategists believed, going into the 2004 election, that it was better to get your own supporters registered and to the polls," he writes, "than to concentrate on the dwindling number of moveable voters."

The key to capitalizing on all this, he says, is the "balance of enthusiasm." Enthusiastic voters are likely to participate without much prodding. "If your side is more enthusiastic, you'll get more volunteers, more contributions and more people taking the trouble to vote for you even without any prompting."

And that leads Barone to speculate, asking "Which side does it favor now? We can look for clues in the turnout in the primaries for governor in New Jersey and Virginia earlier this month." Those numbers, he concludes, favor the GOP.

"[I]f I were the Democrats," he writes, "I'd be worried about the balance of enthusiasm. If I were the Republicans, I'd be mildly optimistic."

Now, it's worth pointing out that Barone may be biased when he makes his analysis. He is known to be conservative. But I have found his methodology to be sound and mostly bias–free over the years.

I'll admit that it's hard to draw sweeping conclusions from the handful of elections that we've seen in 2009. And many things can affect the turnout — including the fact that presidential elections always generate more excitement than midterms or off–year elections do.

And when it comes to drawing "clues" from the modest electoral activity we've had so far, Barone is as good as there is. Both parties would be wise to pay attention.

Especially Democrats. If the midterm elections were a couple of months away, the Democrats would need to find a way to put a happy face onOr, to put it in terms Twain would understand, if the senators and the members of the House who face electoral challenges next year don't pay attention to what Barone says, they're idiots.

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