What if we gave an election and nobody came?


Well, literally not nobody came, instead, as Woody Allen once said, 90% of life is just showing up and that is what the Republicans did on Tuesday when they routed to a major sweep across the country.

First, consider nationally, only 33.3% of the voters showed up. This compares to 41% in 2010, and it is by far the lowest turnout going back to the early 1980s. Two-thirds of Americans stayed home, including young voters and people of color. These are core Democrat voters critical to Obama’s coalition yet they had better things to do than vote. Even in Minnesota, a state priding itself on the highest voter turnout in the nation, only 50.2% of the voters showed up, down from 55% in 2010, and 60% in 2006. Despite all the money and resources spent by the national Democrats and the DFL on GOTV, their base did not turnout. One might speculate what would have happened if they did. Perhaps the national GOP blowout would not have occurred and many of the close races would have tipped the other way. Perhaps the Minnesota House of Representatives would not have flipped with the loss of 11 DFL seats. Who knows, the results might have been different.

It would be too easy to blame the low turnout on restrictive voting laws. Maybe in some states that was an issue, but it does not explain places like Minnesota. Moreover, there were some states such as Wisconsin which actually had higher turnout than four years ago. No, the laws were not the sources of voter discontent. What was?

The first was that there was no constructive defining narrative in 2014. Republicans ran against Obama and Democrats away from him. Republicans told us what they would not do Democrats failed to explain what they did and why they deserve two more years. This was a repeated on the dueling non-narratives of 2010. Republicans had enough of a message to get their base out, Democrats did not. Democrats had a failure of nerve, a failure to articulate why they had made the lives of many people better. They can point to many successes, but too they failed. Obama really has failed on many scores.

Yes Republicans did scuttle many of his efforts, but the President never pushed far and bold enough. Too small a stimulus, too meek health care reform, waiting too late to tackle the environment, money in politics, or serious education reform. He gives a good speech but the reforms he pushed were never grand enough to make the types of differences that needed to be made. We all hoped Obama would be a transformative president, he turned out barely to be a transactional one. Thus, in part the reason why Democrats stayed home was a combination of disillusionment, disappointment, and simply a failure of the president move the country in a direction far enough for people to see a major difference in their life now or in the future.

Going forward, what does all this mean? The election results did little to change national politics. For the last two if not four years power has been gridlocked in Washington, and that is certainly not going to change with the new Congress. Obama was already a lame duck before the election and he was destined to lose influence no matter what the results. Tuesday’s returns simply accelerate the shrinkage of his presidency. The last four years have been marked by repeated but failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, inaction on immigration and global warming, short term stopgap budget issues, and stalemates on minimum wage and a host of other issues. Don’t expect to see that change in the next two years. New congressional majorities do not necessarily mean that the House and Senate will act more responsibly and that its leadership and Obama will reach agreement by necessity. What needs to be understood is that there is a basic philosophical difference over the role of government here, with little electoral incentive to compromise. This is the core to understanding the 2014 elections.

The Pew Research Center has argued correctly that what has emerged in American politics is a two tract election cycle. We have a presidential election cycle marked by turnouts in the mid 50s where women, the young, and people of color turn out, or at least vote in percentages greater than in midterm elections. These are presidential election years that favor Democrats, in theory. But the midterm elections produce significantly lower turnouts, with older, whiter, and more male electorates. In each of these election cycles a different mixture of congressional, state, and local seats are up for election too. The result is that different electorates create contrasting majorities and results. Effectively we have dual majorities rule in the United States, each checking one another. With right now the midterm majorities driving American politics.

Democrats are now looking to 2016 as their salvation when anticipated turnout is up to save them. Don’t count on pure demographics to bail them out. One still needs a good narrative and message, an argument to give people a reason to vote. Obama’s lasting legacy may be one I saw in a New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago when one person turned to another and said “I think Obama has the potential to get a whole new generation disillusioned.” It is this disillusionment that is the reason why we gave an election this past Tuesday and no one came.