I have been posting about the Democratic midterm election drop-off problem all year. Political scientists have been studying this phenomenon for years, and no one has ever produced a hard and fast explanation for why this occurs.
The practical effect is that we have two separate and distinct electorates in this country, one that tends to vote Democratic in presidential years, and one that votes Republican in midterm years, as illustrated below. Note: Democrats did well only in the 2006 midterm election, the “six year itch” of the George W. Bush administration when Republican voter enthusiasm was nil.
So when do most states elect their governor and state legislatures? That’s right, in midterm election years, which gives Republicans a built in electoral advantage. Think Progress reports, Why Republicans Have A Built-In Advantage In Gubernatorial Races:
Of the 50 states, just nine states hold their gubernatorial elections during presidential (2012, 2008, etc.) years. On the other hand, 34 hold their elections only in midterm (2014, 2010, etc.) years. Five states vote in off-year (odd-numbered, e.g. 2011 or 2013) elections, and two other states, New Hampshire and Vermont, hold gubernatorial elections every two years rather than four.
As political observers will tell you, the makeup of the voting electorate in presidential years is quite different than during midterm elections. And that difference is what ultimately disadvantages many Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
- 2012: Men made up 47 percent of the electorate.
- 2014: Men made up 49 percent of the electorate.
- 2012: Voters aged 18-29 made up 19 percent of the electorate. Voters 65 and older were 16 percent.
- 2014: Voters aged 18-29 made up 13 percent of the electorate. Voters 65 and older were 22 percent.
- 2012: Whites made up 72 percent of the electorate, while African Americans and Latinos combined made up 23 percent.
- 2014: Whites made up 75 percent of the electorate, while African Americans and Latinos combined made up 20 percent.
- 2012: Voters who made less than $50k per year comprised 41 percent of the electorate. Those making $100k or more were 28 percent.
- 2014: Voters who made less than $50k per year comprised 36 percent of the electorate. Those making $100k or more were 30 percent.
The electorate this year was significantly whiter, older, richer, and more male than in 2012. In other words, the midterm electorate tends to have more Republican voters, while the presidential electorate tends to have more Democratic voters.
This means that, for Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls in Florida or Ohio or Wisconsin or elsewhere, every election is played on the opponents’ turf. The governor of these states, along with 36 others, is decided with a Republican-leaning midterm electorate.
Any athlete will tell you that playing on the road is always more difficult than playing at home. Republicans, playing at home this year, not only prevailed in many gubernatorial races, but in many they weren’t expected to win.
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If more states held their gubernatorial elections in presidential years, or if more states gave their governors a 2- or 6-year terms, Democrats would get to play at home as well. As is, Republicans enjoyed a systemic bias this year that helped them prevail in many gubernatorial elections.
As of the time of this post, the Arizona Secretary of State says voter turnout in 2014 is 46.44 percent, an historically low voter turnout. But in presidential election years, Arizona has voted 25-30 percent higher than this:
Shouldn’t our statewide elected officials be elected by a majority of the electorate rather than a mere plurality?
Here is an idea, one that will have to be taken to the ballot by a citizens initiative because the Tea-Publican controlled Arizona legislature has no incentive to put this before the voters: move Arizona’s statewide elected offices election to presidential years.
If this was an initiative on the 2016 ballot, the way it would work is that the initiative would take effect in 2020 to allow for a one-time transitional phase. The current crop of Republicans just elected are free to run for reelection in 2018, with the clear understanding that if they are reelected they will be serving a two year second term and will be termed out of office in 2020. If they win reelection in 2018, they would be ineligible to run in 2020.
If a Democrat is elected in 2018, it is with the clear understanding that it is to a two year term, and if they are reelected in 2020, they would serve a four year second term, and will be termed out of office in 2024. They would be ineligible to run in 2024.
You can be certain that there would be a titanic fight over this ballot measure. If you think this year was expensive, wait until you see the fight over this! But given this year’s historic low voter turnout, we should at least be discussing moving our elections.