The Democratic ‘mid-term falloff’ problem

One of the most infuriating things about mid-term elections is the “midterm falloff” of Democratic voter constituencies. Ed Kilgore explains:

Now for a quick refresher course on “midterm fallout” generally, from Tom Schaller at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball back in January of 2013 (note that Tom uses the term “drop-off” rather than “falloff,” but it’s the exact same phenomenon):

In the dozen presidential cycles from 1964 to 2008, turnout shares of the voting-age population ranged from a high of 69.3% (1964) to a low of 54.2% (1996), with an average of 60.2%; in the dozen midterm cycles between 1966 and 2010, turnout averaged 46.2% and ranged between 55.4% (1966) and 41.8% (2010). The average drop-off effect was 14%….

It’s no mystery why Democrats generally perform better in presidential years while Republicans tend to excel in midterm cycles: Lower midterm turnouts tend to skew the electorate toward older, white and/or more affluent voters. Given the growing cleavage in recent decades between partisan preferences of white and non-white voters, cyclic differences in racial composition are particularly important.

So you have two pro-Republican dynamics going on simultaneously in the most recent midterms: different participation rates by groups that are also polarizing in their partisan preferences.

I could go on for quite some time with such numbers, but the point is that the two electorates, midterm and presidential, pretty clearly have two “natural” majorities based on vote share and participation rates. And changing that won’t be easy, for either party.


Here’s Schaller’s take on Democratic efforts to change turnout patterns in midterms:

“There is little to nothing Democrats can do to mitigate the drop-off of turnout among their core constituencies that regularly happens — like a clock — when moving from presidential to midterm elections. Indeed, the primary way to stimulate midterm voters who do vote to support Democrats will not be present in 2014: a poorly performing Republican president that Democrats can rally against (e.g., Bush 2006 or Nixon 1974),” George Mason University’s Michael McDonald, one of the nation’s foremost experts on electoral turnout, explained to me via email. “The first step for Democrats is to prevent 2014 from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy by recruiting quality candidates to run.” McDonald says Democrats will have to look to new strategies, including social media applications. “But, I caution that social media will likely not solve the Democrats’ problems since it failed to prevent the historic Republican landslide in 2010.”

I then asked Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, a critically-acclaimed book about the rising sophistication of electoral field campaign strategies and techniques, how Democrats, who presently enjoy a field mobilization advantage, might “presidentialize” midterm elections. “In the last decade, Democrats have gotten much better at using field experiments to understand the mechanics of mobilization and data to target their efforts to parts of the electorate where they can have the greatest impact. There is a persistent difference between midterm and presidential elections, though: activist engagement, especially among the volunteers who do the work of mobilization,” Issenberg said. “So we may be missing a step here. The primary challenge for Democrats may not be how to mobilize blacks and Hispanics to vote in off-year elections the way they do in presidential cycles, but how to motivate them to volunteer at those levels — because it’s that activity that we know will turn their neighbors out to vote.”

So when you read about the efforts of Senate Democrats to make their 2014 campaign all about reducing midterm falloff, your reaction should be (1) bravo for them, because they are attacking the most critical problem, and (2) there’s no easy formula for accomplishing this goal, which is fighting demographic turnout proclivities that are as old as the hills.

UPDATE: Steve Benen adds, ‘We have a turnout issue’ :

For all the Beltway assumptions and Republican rhetoric about 2014 being about the Affordable Care Act, the cycle is really about Democratic turnout more than anything else.

I can appreciate why this might seem like the most painfully obvious comment possible: if one party succeeds in turning out its voters and the other doesn’t, there’s no great mystery as to who’ll win. It practically defines a political no-brainer.

* * *

Democrats “have a turnout issue.” Effective targeting and competent candidates can help address this, but on a broader level, the smart move for the party is prioritizing Democratic excitement.

Running away from health care reform probably won’t help. Neither will cowering in fear of the NRA. In general, party voters – on both sides – don’t get more engaged when they see party leaders getting into a defensive crouch, hoping not to get beat up too much.

I’m no campaign strategist, but it seems to me Democrats could probably put together some kind of “Four for 2014” platform, telling voters they’ll pass four popular bills – immigration, minimum-wage increase, infrastructure jobs, and veterans benefits, all of which failed due to GOP opposition – if the electorate takes power away from Republicans.

If the goal is to create an incentive for Dems to show up, maybe the party should give them a reason?

2 thoughts on “The Democratic ‘mid-term falloff’ problem”

  1. I don’t see what the president has to do with Paula Pennypacker kicking your ass in November, assuming that you even survive your primary contest in August.

  2. Don’t forget that the “poorly performing Democrat president” is also a factor.

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