Do progressives even sit out elections? The numbers say no.


Bob Lord and AZ Blue Meanie are having an interesting dialog on whether progressives should or shouldn’t withhold their votes to punish DINOs who regularly vote or embrace positions that go against progressive values. Bob argues that progressives have not done themselves favors by rewarding the DINOs with electoral victories and that reorienting the country from the massive rightward shift of the past three decades may require be willing to lose some elections to Republicans. Meanie counters that it’s about basic math and caucuses. In other words, the party that wins the majority of seats controls what even goes up for a vote.

For my part I’ll just say my heart is with Bob but my head is with Meanie on this. I’m a pro-choice activist and I cannot in good conscience withhold my vote from a pro-choice Democrat even if I am furious at her about several other things. Not with this relentless barrage of attacks on women’s reproductive rights going on. See, when Republicans lose a few elections to push the party to the right actual people don’t get hurt. If progressive Democrats did that then a lot of people, mostly poor and vulnerable, would be substantially harmed. I say “if” because the empirical evidence that we have on voting patterns demonstrates that progressives do not sit out elections.

After the 2010 debacle, a piece of conventional wisdom quickly arose within the upper echelons of the Dem establishment, and was disseminated widely among Dem activists and bloggers, that the losses happened because “whiny” progressives sat out the election to punish President Obama for not giving them the “ponies” they wanted, such as a public option in the health care law. I found it remarkable how so many people were willing to believe that the White House, DSCC, DCCC, DGA, DLCC, etc., plus the armies of consultants paid exorbitant sums of money to win elections were helpless before the Tea Party rage wave but, somehow, it all could have been averted if only some disgruntled hippies on MSNBC or obscure blogs would have had a more positive attitude. It remains an article of faith among many people despite it being easily debunked with exit polls, as Daily Kos’ Scientician did here.

So I went back to the exit polls and the picture I see shows nothing like that. If you are a proponent of this claim, I challenge you for empirical proof that some set of activist liberals “took their ball and went home” or whatever metaphor you prefer to make Obama’s leftward critics appear childish and immature. Inside, the evidence I found that shows this just ain’t so.

Here’s what CNN found in the 2010 House exit poll, when respondents were asked for their ideology, note the number in brackets which indicates the proportion of the respondents who picked that option:

Liberal (20%)
D – 90%
R – 8%
Other – 2%

Moderate (38%)
D – 55%
R – 42%
Other – 3%

Conservative (42%)
D – 13%
R – 84%
Other – 3%

So liberals made up 20% of the actual 2010 electorate, and vote 90% for the Democrats.

Here’s 2006, the previous mid-term:

Liberal (20%)
D – 87%
R – 11%
Other – 2%

Moderate (47%)
D – 60%
R – 38%
Other – 2%

Conservative (32%)
D – 20%
R – 78%
Other – 2%

As you can see, Democrats did slightly better with liberals in 2010 than in 2006. Had there really been a collective we’re-sitting-out-the-election-to-spite-Obama pout going on, then there should have been a sharp drop in the liberal participation percentage. Yet notice the 9% in moderate voter participation and the concomitant 10% increase in conservative turnout. Republicans were pumped for that election but their turnout tends to be higher in midterms anyway. Millions of moderate voters either flipped to conservative or stayed home in 2010.

I would prefer if this analysis by Pew did an apples-to-apples comparison of midterms as the Daily Kos piece did but it is a very thorough breakdown of what they call the Political Typology and how the different types of voters turned out.


As you can see, all the Democratic groups dropped, but the liberal Democrats dropped least of all and probably not inconsistently with their usual drop-off from general to midterm elections. Had the Solid Liberals replicated their performance from 2008 to 2012 it’s doubtful it would have impacted many races. If there were Solid Liberals who deliberately sat out the election in 2010 out of anger, and there certainly are anecdotes on the internet from people claiming they would do just that, their numbers were small and I suspect they were voters in safe districts of either shade where it wouldn’t matter. I was in Harry Mitchell’s district at the time, and he was widely regarded as a Blue Dog, and I promise you that progressives did not sit it out in that race. I’m very confident that it was moderate voters in (then) CD5 who sat it out or threw their votes to David Schweikert. Likewise if Sinema or Barber lose (which I am NOT saying they will, just hypothetically) it will be for the same reason. But, as in 2010, liberals will get the blame. Preemptive hippie-punching has already begun, as is evident in this recent comment I got.

As much as you might not be happy with these representatives (and I’m not happy either) if you don’t support them, with your money, as well as your votes, then you increase the likelihood that the Republicans, and the Koch brothers, will grab those seats and hold them. Half-ass support is just as damaging as no support. Tell these reps what you want them to do, tell them what you like or don’t like, but do not withhold your support either via your checkbook or via the ballot box. At some point in the future these seats will go to more progressive people, but that cannot happen now. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

See, liberals, you’ve already ruining everything with your selfish purity pony refusal to be unpaid PR reps/ATM machines for candidates. And the especially neat thing about this is that both Sinema and Barber (and to a lesser extent Ann Kirkpatrick) have been doing all they can to distance themselves from President Obama, if not outright undermine him – which is precisely why liberals are pissed off at them – but should any or all of them lose this year, conventional wisdom will cast the blame for it on…wait for it…liberals for not being sufficiently loyal to President Obama!

One final thing before I go. Don’t even try bringing up Ralph Nader. Fuck Ralph Nader. If you subscribe to the view that lefty voters in Florida who couldn’t see the difference between the parties and threw their votes away to Nader (and you’ll get no argument from me on that) were solely responsible for the election being handed to GWB in 2000, that is certainly your prerogative. You should, however, be cognizant that the statute of limitations on that was actually up in 2004, when Nader ran again and got a fraction of the votes he’d gotten previously. Nader voters clearly learned their lesson. Furthermore, Nader only ever applied to Presidential elections. There was no President at the top of the ticket in 2010. Democrats lost 67 Congressional seats. Did every one of those 67 races have a Ralph Nader-type spoiler siphoning off enough votes for the Dem candidate to lose? NO. So Nader is not only old news but completely irrelevant to the vast majority of elections. I know you’ve got nothing when you bring up Nader.


  1. Before you go quoting someone and then attributing reasons to that quote as when you said “Preemptive hippie punching has already begun” you should know something of the person who you speak of. I have voted in every election since I turned 18 (just like BlueMeanie). Unlike BlueMeanie I’m idealistic. However like him I am practical. And I’m a Liberal/Progressive, heck both of those labels fit me pretty well (in the best version of the definitions). And I’m also laid back enough to have been called a Hippie, and I’m proud of it.

    From a practical perspective in Arizona when a not entirely crazy Republican wins a seat, he stays there for decades. I won’t let our Democratic seats won by hard work and in Gabby’s case taken away prematurely by blood and injury, be given to the Republicans without a fight. Our candidates can’t fight the Koch brothers without small donations from many donors. Would I like more progressive candidates, sure, who wouldn’t? I hugged Raul Grijalva in a store and told him he was my hero. As is Gabby. But I’m not in Raul’s district (he said I could call him by his first name by the way). I have to support the people in my district too and build on those seats we can get and hold. That means being practical, that means doing the math. I agree that progressive votes don’t fall off that much in mid-terms. Those that fall off are the uninterested, uninformed, easily confused by negative ads voters. Don’t forget negative ads are all about depressing turnout. Why? Because when turnout is depressed it is OUR voters who don’t go to the polls more often than theirs. If our voters go to the polls Democrats and Progressives get elected! The more seats we win, the more of them will likely be Progressive seats. And at least on one issue — the Environment — I checked on Ron Barber’s voting record, he has a 75% Pro-Environment voting record with the League of Conservation Voters last time I checked (about a month or two ago). I know he would have a higher rating if he was in Raul’s district and didn’t have to be beaten up with Koch money every 2 years and forced to vote either for the environment or against the border security. It’s not a perfect record but it’s way better than the 0% record I would expect from his opponent. He’s way better on many issues, women’s issues, equality issues, income inequality issues, veteran’s support issues, support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (aka ACCCHS here), and so forth. Is he perfect, no. Is he better than a Republican, yes.

    • TS, why is “half-assed support as damaging as no support” when we’re supposed to be “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good”? Why isn’t my half-assed support of Sinema and Barber good enough for them if their half-assed support of progressive ideas is good enough for me?

  2. In January of this year, Republicans passed No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions (H.R.7) which “would prohibit insurance plans sold in the new health care exchanges from covering abortion, and it would eliminate tax benefits for small businesses that purchase insurance plans covering abortion. The bill would also prevent the District of Columbia from using its own locally raised funds to subsidize abortion care for low-income women.”

    Six Dems voted for this bill, Sinema and Barber were not among them. But riddle me this, if the seats of Sinema and Barbara were filled by anti-choice Republicans would the outcome have been any different. The answer is no, because the vote was 227 to 188. This horrible bill will be stopped in the Senate or by a Presidential veto. Sinema’s apologists are fond of saying that her bad votes don’t matter because the bills she voted for would have passed anyway. They are correct, her vote never matters one way or the other. What does matter is that she publicly undermines Democratic positions and gives “bipartisan” aid and comfort to the enemy. Sinema and Barber know better than to vote for a bill restricting abortions even if their vote doesn’t matter. There would be holy hell to pay if they ever voted for such a bill. Why then are the rest of us asked to “suck it up” when they vote for bills deregulating derivatives trading or allowing logging in public forests? The way to keep abortion safe and legal is to make sure Dems maintain control of the Senate and hold the Presidency. The Sinemas and Barbers of the world are largely irrelevant. If they lost their bids for reelection, it really wouldn’t matter much.

    • You bring up a good point about abortion bills, John. Barber and Sinema are Blue Dogs themselves but their districts are NOT Blue Dog districts. They are moderate urban districts. Blue Dog districts are Southern and rural areas where the Democratic voters are conservative, hence their reps will vote for guns and abortion restrictions.

  3. I agree with all of this BUT what’s with the “hippies on MSNBC” stuff. Stop that! Who is more honest or accurate than Rachel or Chris Hayes. Their guests are a mix of all races and status and expertise. I don’t remember any “hippies” unless you mean Barney Frank because he looks rumpled!

  4. I’m not so sure that the disagreement is over whether liberals should vote. I certainly voted in 2010.
    What I didn’t do was contribute toward or campaign for Barber in the primary.
    And I still maintain that if progressives had primaried Barber and voted in the primary for a real liberal, we would all be better off.
    Even if Barber won the primary, he would have a better voting record today.

    But too many liberals are fearful of challenging a mediocre candidate in the primary for fear of losing the general. And that is a good recipe for moving the party rightward.

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