The Mind of the Marginal Voter

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, November 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mind of the Marginal Voter


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

The issues that energized new voters in '08 haven't been resolved completely by the man they put in the White House.

For Democrats hoping to pull off the electoral equivalent of an interception at the goal line with one second left in the game, the primaries were a rude awakening--not because of who won, but because of who voted. To prevent a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, Democrats need to mobilize most of the millions of voters who put Barack Obama in the White House. But of the 33.8 million people who voted in the primaries this year, most were Republicans, with a vote advantage of 3.8 million. The last time Republican turnout in midterm primaries exceeded Democratic turnout was 1930. And the last time a smaller fraction of age-eligible Democrats (8.2 percent) turned out for midterm primaries was--never: 2010 beat the previous record-low year of 2006, when only 9 percent of Democrats came out to choose their party's midterm standard bearers.

Those numbers, from American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, bode ill for Democrats' hopes. The low primary turnout shows that 2008's marginal voters (as scientists call those who vote only rarely) and first-time voters, who netted the Democrats 21 House seats and eight Senate seats, are sitting this one out. Although the historic Republican turnout edge in this year's primaries was partly due to the fact that more GOP races than Democratic ones were competitive, "it was also because the Republicans smell victory, which boosts turnout," says American's Curtis Gans. That suggests GOP voters will be energized for Nov. 2 as well: just as people wanted to be part of history in 2008, which had a near-record turnout of 61.7 percent, so Republicans and Tea Partiers want to make history this year.

Also working for the GOP is that the recession is likely to dampen participation. That's an oddity, because in bad economic times overall turnout usually rises "because people are riled up or fearful, and want to take it out on the party in power," says Gans. But the recession has been so severe and so prolonged, he says, "that I'm less sure we'll see an increase in turnout this time." That will favor the GOP because higher- or lower-than-average turnout reflects whether marginal voters show up or stay home. Habitual voters tend to be those with higher incomes and more education, factors that predict turnout more strongly than any others, says political scientist Jan Leighley, also of American. Wealthier, more educated voters also tend to go Republican. They'll vote in high numbers no matter what.

The low turnout that Gans and many other experts expect would therefore mean that marginal voters--who voted Democratic in 2008--don't come out. Indeed, a new Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 56 percent of people who voted for Obama describe themselves as "very interested" in the midterms, a reflection of how dejected many marginal voters feel about the state of the nation--or about their own situation. …

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