Democratic voters sit out yet another off-year election. Let’s examine why.


Crossposted from


This is getting old. Tuesday was election day across the nation and Democrats performed poorly, yet again, as they have tended to do the past several elections that are not Presidential general ones. The reason for it is obvious: low turnout, averaging about 30% nationwide. The explanations behind that reason that liberals will come up with are akin to the game show “Wheel of Fortune”, where in the final round the common letters picked to guess the winning phrase had become so predictable that the show just started spotting them to the contestants years ago: R,S,T,L,N,E.

The R,S,T,L,N,E of Democratic losses are as follows, in no particular order of importance and with no judgment on my part on their veracity, as all are true to varying extents:

1. Democrats don’t have a message.
2. Democratic candidates run as Republican lite and run away from President Obama.
3. Gerrymandering.
4. Voter suppression and other logistical impediments to voting.
5. Citizens United and the flooding of elections with huge amounts of money from well-heeled right wing ideologues.
6. Demographics.

Let’s take them one by one:

1. Message – This is the squishiest one, in my opinion. It began in the 90s when Frank Luntz (an overrated hack, in my opinion) rose to prominence in the Republican Party and on the national political scene by focus grouping the shit out of words so as to find just the right ones to make terrible conservative ideas like ending the estate tax (“Death Tax!”) palatable and denigrating all things liberal (“DemocRAT Party!” “sick!” “traitors!” etc.) That Luntz was arguably successful at it was less a reflection on his purported genius and more on how ridiculously easy it is to sell resentment over imaginary affronts and self-deception to angry white voters and the right wing politicians who represent them. In the words of BR (played by JK Simmons) as a tobacco industry flack in “Thank You for Smoking”: “We don’t sell Tic Tacs for Christ’s sake. We sell cigarettes! And they’re cool and available and addictive. The job is almost done for us!”

Nonetheless, liberals have cowered in fear of Luntz-speak and have been desperate to find our own equivalent communication guru who will dispense magic words to us that will make our positions (which are already popular) popular and get voters to understand that we are telling the truth about everything (because we are). You should be able to see why, while we could definitely stand to tighten up our rhetoric, we liberals don’t need a Frank Luntz to help us lie. That is because we’re not lying and our intentions, unlike the GOP’s, don’t suck. But because liberals have been suckers for the “both sides do it!” narrative, and have insisted upon seeing ourselves as the mirror-image of conservatives, it has caused us to latch onto people like George Lakoff as a potential savior. Dr. Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of the Elephant, among other tomes and articles, seems like a very nice and intelligent man. He likes to speak of “framing” and of “strict fathers” vs “nurturing parents” and whatnot. I’d like to say more about his insights but the problem is that when I try to read his stuff I tend to get sleepy, because I find so much of it to be boring, long-winded, redundant, and laden with academic jargon. Lakoff isn’t wrong in his linguistic and conceptual analyses (from what I gather) but it would sure be nice if he got to the damn point. Just my opinion and I’m sorry if you love Lakoff but if he has the wisdom to reverse the fortunes of the Democrats in mid-term and off-year elections, I have yet to see it in practice.

Because I certainly don’t want to get too long-winded with this, I’ll just say that message and framing aren’t nothing but they aren’t everything either. I said my piece on this in a post last year. Furthermore, understand that whatever “message” Democrats come up with, no matter how perfect and ironclad it is, it will be countered by a bullshit message from the right and drowned out by their much larger megaphone. Remember how Fred DuVal raised all your tuition rates?

2. Republican Lite/running away from President Obama – Yep, this happens and we can go around and around about whether it’s smart and it will be pointed out that the President won two elections and that some Dems who didn’t shy away from him did well. But I’ll tell you what else: No Democrat running in what appears to be a close or winnable race in a red or even purple state where President Obama is unpopular and isn’t even on the ballot (where there might at least be some hope of his coattails) is going to embrace him. Nor are they going to run to the left in any way. I really wish more Democrats polling 20 points down would go full Bernie Sanders but would one who thinks s/he is within 5 points do it? Nope.

3. Gerrymandering – Yep, shit is gerrymandered and this is a problem for Democrats. Republicans got 52% of the national vote in Congress in 2014 but ended up with 57% of the seats. Because shit is gerrymandered because Republicans got to draw most of the maps. Sucks. This doesn’t explain the many non-gerrymandered races Republicans won, such as for Governor and Senator.

4. Voter suppression and other impediments to voting – Too numerous to explicate here but let’s just take the example of Kentucky, where uber-reactionary Matt Bevin won over Jack Conway for Governor in a major upset (warning: autoplay video). Do you know what time the polls in Kentucky, which appears to require in-person voting on election day with few exceptions, close? 6pm. So, assuming the Democrat running there “grew a spine”, didn’t “run as Republican lite”, and had the mostest perfectest “message” ever, how many of his or her possible voters would be prevented from voting due to not being able to get out of work on time? I’m thinking a lot, and that’s just one way that a state has made voting difficult for people who aren’t white, affluent, and blessed with an abundance of free time. Amanda Marcotte of Salon thinks so too:

There’s a lot of chatter in Democratic circles about things like Citizens United and campaign finance reform. Those are important issues, but while the issue of voter turnout is less sexy, it’s almost surely the far bigger problem. Democrats need to start getting serious about improving voter turnout—advocating for Saturday elections, pushing for online or mail-in ballots, hell, pushing for mandatory voting—anything that will make off-year election turnout look more like presidential election year turnout. Because right now, Republicans are quietly exploiting this particular bug in our election system [off-year elections] to secure a lot more power than their actual numbers should give them.

5. Citizens United/money in races – Huge issue, especially in off-year and down-ticket races, for obvious reasons, and the best argument for Democrats to focus on the logistics of voting and directly addressing the concrete needs of Democratic constituencies (for health care access, living wages, affordable housing, etc.) rather than nebulous “messages” and “framing” that are going to be lost in a sea of right wing money and bullshit. Liberals can take heart in Clean Elections measures passing in Maine and Seattle, WA. Voters are hungry for campaign finance reform, and the ability of people who can’t write big checks to dictate elections and governance. (Yes, Arizona’s experiment with it has stalled and been stymied by litigation, as well as by liberals and moderates who have wrong-headedly decided that it’s best to jettison the program rather than make it work for the people here.)

6. Demographics – Perhaps the most frustrating of the factors. Midterm participation in elections has been significantly lower than in Presidential years going back to the 1840s. I’m not sure I’m willing to go as far as calling for mandatory voting, but it is certainly worth considering. We now require everyone to have health insurance on the principle that we’re all in it together.

I do wish everyone who skipped this past election were required to watch this pasty-assed goober say this:

So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Those are not the words of someone worried about how engaging and positive his message is.


  1. no message run as republican light ;but this one is tricky as gun control does not sell in red purple or even some blue states. fred duvalism is rampant in other states too! Obama stayed away from gun issue and won twice with liberal agenda. social security medicare hit hard and stay away from gun control as this keeps democrats from voting or voting republican. mrs. clinton should remember what happened to democrats in 1994 and this week in virginia last year in colorado to gun control candidates.

  2. How about none of the above? There are a lot if reasons that Democratic voters don’t go to the polls in off year elections. We have yet to see any real solid scientific studies on why that is. In the City of Tucson we elected an all Democratic City Council in a low turnout election, why is that? Why was Pennsylvania able to elect 3 out of 3 Supreme Court Justices in an off year election? The flip side is why Kentucky happened? We are really just guessing without good studies to know.

    My guess is that many Democratic voters are low income and working three jobs to make ends meet and just don’t have the time to focus on the issues and candidates. Often down ballot races don’t have a lot of advertising, and candidates don’t have money for said ads. The newspapers and local newsare not doing their jobs of informing voters, assuming people have time to absorb it. I told a friend, a bright friend, that I was going to Bernie Sanders’ rally, this friend said “Who is that?” Being politically savvy is a nerdy thing to do, not everybody is a nerd. Or I guess the term is wonk.

    So why do Dems vote when they vote? When it has a personal interest for them. To raise the minimum wage. To legalize pot. To get rid of a particularly bad apple of a politician, and then it had better be someone who has been caught not just with their hand in the till but in some particularly egregious situation that angers many many people. And it has to anger a lot of republicans too. To vote for the head of the ticket if that person really inspires them. To vote against someone equally distasteful, if that person is aspiring to the highest office. Charisma is very important. The old saying that Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line is mostly correct. but what we really need is a solid study and then using that information devising a strategy for engaging voters who are inconsistent..

  3. The Democratic Party (Arizona and nationally) takes money from undemocratic special interests. They (both) suppress the messages that will liberate the electorate, the citizenry, the populace.

    Training programs like Leading for Change, formerly a Progressive organization, take money from APS, etc. Total sham.

    Strike at the root.

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