The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 41


To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso
This week:

  • Obama provokes Republicans with unilateral change to immigration law.
  • 2016: Should Republicans fear the midterm gap?
  • Where Republicans expanded the electorate.


Immigration order: When you want to provoke a bull, you wave a red flag in front of it. President Obama is doing something like this right now, in hopes of getting Republicans to make a mistake. He likes his odds here, which is understandable, but with his extra-legal action, he risks further damaging the federal government as an institution in the public eye — something his presidency has been very good at doing by accident.

It should first be clear what Obama’s order is not about — it is not a reprioritization of resources away from deporting otherwise law-abiding long-term illegal residents. In fiscal 2013, 98 percent of the 300,000-plus deportations involved convicted criminals, recent border-crossers, and national security threats, the very people this order purports to prioritize. And so this part of the order — “felons not families,” the part Obama spent most of his time describing in Thursday’s address — doesn’t substantially change current policy.

The part that does change is the potential issuance of work permits and the grant of temporary status to as many as 5 million people who might qualify. This poses significant constitutional problems. Assuming the policy changes are desirable, they should be the result of legislation.

But the trick for Republicans is how they can respond without sinking themselves. Republicans have shown uncharacteristic discipline so far, but there are a handful of hot-heads in Congress just waiting to pull another Todd Akin at any moment, and Obama knows it. That’s the sole reason for his action, not some kind of improvement of the immigration system, because any executive action by Obama is unlikely to outlast his presidency.

It is a sign of Obama’s bad faith that his action pre-empted any opportunity for the new GOP Congress to deal with the issue — they haven’t even been sworn in yet. And Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has suggested that Obama has killed any chance of Congress passing an immigration bill next session, and that’s not hard to understand given his position.

This, along with Obama’s failure to act on immigration when he had a Congress that would have done something, confirms the longstanding dynamic of immigration reform — Democrats have the most to lose in the long-term if it ever passes, because it removes the issue from the table. Republicans have the most to gain, because it gets the issue behind them and probably hastens a long, gradual process of the Hispanic vote converging with the white vote — as the results in key 2014 races suggest it will.

The Democratic Party right now is the party Wendy Davis and Mark Udall — fanatically left-wing on social issues, and offering little of substance to the typical working voter whose household brings in roughly the median wage or above. The party depends for its support on white gentry liberal and black voters. Their cultural tone-deafness toward Hispanic voters is masked only by the continued importance of immigration reform.

Outside California and New York, Democrats cannot take Hispanic voters for granted. They gave Republican Greg Abbott 44 percent of their votes in Texas this month, and they may have (although the sample sizes are too small to be quoted with precision) tied or gone Republican in some races in Kansas and Georgia this year. If Hispanics in Red States begin adopting the local political culture, then the Great Demographic Spaghetti monster that Democrats have been expecting since 1968 will never arrive to recreate their permanent majority.

President 2016

The Midterm gap: Republicans did great in 2014. But is it a hollow victory? Are they at a hopeless disadvantage in 2016? CIB102914-Voter

One of the themes commonly heard in the media is that turnout in the presidential-year electorate is much more Democratic than in midterms like 2014. Democrats’ disadvantage in the midterms — the “midterm gap” — reflects a higher drop-off rate by their voters when there isn’t a presidential race on the ballot. How much of a concern should it be to Republicans that in 2016, those drop-off voters will probably be back? 

It is true that midterm electorates tend to be more Republican-looking and presidential electorates less so, but how much more? Let me suggest that this theme’s importance is exaggerated.

It’s true that younger voters swing upward between 5 and 12 points between midterm and presidential years as a share of the electorate. But the biggest swing in recent memory came between the 2002 midterm and George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election — not with Obama’s 2008 election. Another example: Looking at 2014, the black vote, the most reliable voting bloc that Democrats have, did not drop off much, if at all — it was 12 percent of the vote, barely down from the record high 13 percent of 2012 and 2008 — a statistically insignificant change amid a population whose electoral importance will likely decline in the future along with that of non-Hispanic whites as the Hispanic population rises.

Democrats don’t have a corner on voters who only show up only once every four years — many Republicans share this pattern of behavior as well. For an indicator of this that is not driven by one campaign or one candidate, look at the national vote total from House elections occur consistently and their aggregate result is not skewed badly by any one candidiate) Democrats had a drop-off of 24.6 million votes between 2012 and 2014 for U.S. House races. Republicans had a drop-off too, of 18.5 million votes. That’s a 6.1 million-vote difference in national drop-off between the parties, which translates to 5.2 percent of the 2012 two-party House vote.

It is tempting to look at numbers like these and wonder whether Democrats couldn’t somehow find the holy grail by limiting their own drop-off in the midterms. But although the total vote from House races can be compared between every election as a sort of generic ballot poll of the voters, there are limitations to how far one can take this thinking. For one thing, the 6.1 million number is probably an upper-limit, because it’s measuring drop-off from an election in which Republicans did very poorly to an election in which they did exceptionally well. If we were to look at the 2004 and 2006 elections this way (in which Republicans suffered a drop-off twice as large as Democrats), we might come to the opposite conclusions.

More fundamentally, the suggestion that this gap is entirely due to a difference in voting habits between the parties’ bases is overly simplistic. It ignores the fact that various considerations dominate for various voters in different election years. Some change their beliefs permanently with age and experience — probably the experiences of the Bush and Obama presidencies each played a large role with many of them. Some voters switch back and forth frequently. And so an over-reliance on the midterm gap tends to discount the role played by voter persuasion.

It also ignores that a party’s voter turnout performance in any given election is largely a function of how well its candidates excite and motivate voters. This, more than any innate habit, made the crucial difference between the two parties in 2014. 

Change in U.S. House vote in selected states, 2012 to 2014

State                              R Drop-off                 D drop-off          Gap in drop-off as a %
                                                                                                     of the 2012 two-party vote
Colorado:                      -148,000                   -151,000                      0.13%
Florida:                          -1.44M                        -1.55M                         1.4%
Iowa:                              -132,000                    -266,000                      8.9%
Nevada:                         -152,000                    -243,000                      9.9%
New Hampshire:         -80,000                      -94,000                         2.1%
North Carolina:             -582,000                   -985,000                      9.3%
Pennsylvania:               -888,000                   -1.34M                          8.2%
Virginia:                          -734,000                   -960,000                      6.1%
Wisconsin:                    -172,000                   -344,000                      6.0%

Here’s one clear example of how candidates and messages can override simple turnout concerns: In Colorado, Democrats and Republicans essentially had the same drop-off in votes for U.S. House, with Republicans getting slightly more in both 2012 and 2014. Yet these two electorates, which displayed a similar mix in terms of party preference for House, elected both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Cory Gardner — candidates with very different ideological leanings. 

Of course, the gap between the parties’ respective drop-offs was much larger in many of the states in the chart above. But even in those cases, it would be a mistake to assume that this gives Democrats something to look forward to in 2016. In addition to the problems cited above, that would also ignore many circumstances that were peculiar to 2012 and 2014. For example, much work was done to improve Republican voter turnout in 2014 after the 2012 disaster, and the fruits of that effort will tend to make the midterm gap seem larger by a couple of points, especially in states like Iowa.

The opposite is the case in Nevada, where Democrats really just didn’t show up. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was reelected with about the same number of votes as he got in 2010 — which is not terrible, given that the Reid-Angle Senate race drove turnout up quite high for a midterm that year. But Democrats failed to field even a semi-serious candidate against Sandoval this time, and they saw their own voter turnout fall off a cliff (overall voter turnout was down nearly ten points) as they lost both houses of the state legislature and the GOP swept statewide offices.

As for absolute voter-turnout levels, they mean a lot less than the conventional wisdom suggests in terms of party advantage. Lower turnout is said to favor Republicans as a rule of thumb, but this is a myth, false nearly as often as it is true. In midterms, low turnout has frequently accompanied Republican disasters — this was the case in 1974, 1986, and 2006. The same could be said of 1998, when the GOP failed to make expected gains. The 2010 Tea Party Wave also featured higher voter turnout than any of those years.  Republicans also did quite well in 2014 in the states where turnout was up from 2010. (See next section.) 

Higher turnout doesn’t automatically favor Democrats in presidential years, either. When George W. Bush won the 2004 election — just ten years ago — he did so amid the highest presidential-year voter turnout (61 percent) since 1976. The lowest presidential turnout in recent history (only 53 percent) was for Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. It’s not about whether turnout is high or low — it’s about whose voters are turning out. 

The point here is that we can expect a larger electorate in 2016, and one that has a more typically Democratic traits than the one that turned out in 2014, but that isn’t necessarily determinative of anything. The main reason more people vote in presidential years is that a lot more money is spent turning them out, and the effects of that — though not evenly distributed between the party’s bases — is not so lopsided as to fix in advance the outcome of either presidential or midterm elections.

If Republicans want to spend their free time worrying about something, they should think about how badly the party did in 2008 and 2012 in a few of the states on the chart above, such as Colorado and Virgnia — not about the midterm gap or the higher turnout that is characteristic of presidential years.

Election 2014

Expanding the Electorate: Turnout for the the 2014 election has not been CIB112414-Election-turnoutcompletely calculated yet, but it seems to have been unusually low nationwide — possibly as low as 37 percent. For comparison, turnout was 42 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2006. 

There are a few things that made this year a perfect storm for low turnout. For one thing, 2014 was the midterm that occurs every 12 years when there are no Senate races in either New York or California. The last time this happened, in 2002, there were at least somewhat competitive governors’ races in both of those large states, but not this time. Also unlike 2002, there were no competitive statewide races at all this time in Texas.

Turnout in California was down 13 points (!) from 2010; Texas was down 4 points and New York down 7 points, according to projections from University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald. Just those three states together appear to have cast about 3.5 million fewer votes than in 2010, even though all three grew in voting-eligible population, and that could account for up to 2 points out of the four or five-point drop in turnout from 2010.

Turnout was also quite abysmal in a few other smaller states that hit their own 12-year cycle of having no statewide races in a midterm — Indiana, Missouri, Washington, and Utah.

But turnout was not down everywhere — and indeed, in the states where turnout was higher than 2010 went pretty well for the GOP. They include six states where Republicans gained a Senate seat or forced a runoff they will probably win (Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Louisiana) and a couple more states where they successfully defended Senate seats (Kentucky, Kansas) or saved a governor (Florida).

The places where turnout rose most dramatically are the most interesting. Here’s a granular look at three states where GOP turnout efforts across the board clearly made the party more competitive:

Colorado: Voter turnout was up in Colorado from 2010 (and well above the national average), and Republicans are pretty happy with the result there. No, they did not win the governorship, but they picked up a U.S. Senate seat and won all other statewide races, in addition to seizing control of the state Senate and winning the state’s aggregate vote for U.S. House once again (as they did in 2012).

What is impressive about Cory Gardner’s victory — and this surely helped in other races as well — is that Republicans drove up turnout in their best counties and found thousands of new GOP voters. He did not merely widen his margins because Democrats didn’t turn out — Democrats did turn out, just not as well as they did four years ago.

The baseline comparison with the very close 2010 election between Michael Bennet and Ken Buck is helpful — it indicates that after years of bumbling, Republicans in the Centennial State are finally starting to find the votes that are out there for them in Colorado’s reddest counties, and even in some of the traditionally Blue ones.

In Weld County, Gardner turned about about 9,000 more Republican votes than Buck — the District Attorney of Weld County — had found in 2010, whereas the Democrats’ numbers were nearly unchanged. In Douglas County, the story was similar — Gardner’s margin of victory grew by 14,000 compared to Buck’s. In fast-growing El Paso County, Gardner added to Buck’s margin by 18,000 votes amid very high turnout.

Gardner also flipped a few counties, including two small, heavily Hispanic ones (Las Animas and Conejos) — but his most impressive accomplishment might have been in a county he lost — Pueblo County. Gardner came within 300 votes of carrying heavily Hispanic Pueblo County because he expanded the electorate and found 5,000 new votes that had not been cast for Buck in 2010. The last time a Republican came this close to carrying Pueblo, it was Gov. Bill Owens in his 30-point landslide re-election of 2002. For Gardner to come that close while winning statewide by just over two points was is evidence of a smart and concentrated turnout effort. 

Wisconsin had the second-highest voter turnout of any state in 2014 — at 57 percent of those eligible, voters turned out significantly better than in 2010. Not only was Gov. Scott Walker re-elected comfortably, but Republicans won all but one statewide race and gained seats in both houses of the state legislature.

This was not due to low Democratic turnout — indeed, Democrats significantly improved their vote totals and their margins over 2010 in their two large strongholds, Dane County (by 21,000 votes) and Milwaukee County (by 17,000 votes). But Republicans found even more new votes in their own strongholds, expanding Walker’s overall victory margin by about 13,000 votes statwide.

Higher Republican turnout was evident in crucial Waukesha County (where Walker’s margin improved by 12,000 votes), Outagamie (by 9,000 gotes) Washington (by 5,000), Brown (by 6,000), Manitowoc (by 2,000 votes), Clark (by 2,500), Calumet (by 3,000 votes), and Marinette (by 1,500 votes), among others. What is noteworthy about these particular counties is that Walker increased his raw vote totals significantly from 2010, whereas Democrats failed to improve much or at all. In other words, Walker’s victorious campaign methodically found new Republican midterm voters and expanded the Republican electorate in his state. This is what strong state parties do, and it’s a good sign for the Wisconsin GOP’s health.

Maine: Republican Gov. Paul LePage, R, won one of the most unlikely re-elections of 2014. His party unexpectedly seized control of the state Senate and picked up a U.S. House seat as well. Again, this happened not because of low Democratic turnout, but because new Republican voters drove the state’s turnout up to the highest of any state in America — 59 percent, much higher than Maine had in 2010 and in fact the same as the national percentage turnout for Obama’s re-election in 2012. 

As with Walker, LePage simply found too many new voters for his opponents to keep up. It came about so quietly that it had the feel of a statewide conspiracy of silence, and it must have absolutely shocked the Democrats when LePage outperformed the polls and nearly won an outright majority in the three-way race. He was helped somewhat when a liberal group gathered enough signatures to place on the ballot severe restrictions on bear-hunting — this likely helped bring hunters out in force and created a backlash against eco-liberals in general. (The ban failed by about 7 points.) Speaking of which, it must be a source of great pain for Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire who spent heavily to support Democrats, that LePage did so well despite being one of his top targets.

Like Walker, LePage drove up Republican turnout in his stronghold areas, but he also did something Walker largely did not — he found new voters in the state’s most Democratic counties and closed his margin of loss. For example, LePage added 17,000 new votes in Cumberland County (Portland), where the combined total for Independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Mike Michaud was only about 4,000 more than in 2010. In the state’s more conservative upland and Downeast counties, LePage also added many new votes where his combined opponents added practically none or even lost a few from 2010 — LePage tacked on 5,000 in Kennebec County, 8,000 in Androscoggin County, 7,000 new votes in Penobscot County, 15,000 new votes in York County.

It’s easy to see how this adds up to a victory. In his narrow 2010 win, LePage got 218,000 votes, versus a combined 317,000 for his top two opponents combined. This time, LePage won 294,000 votes — many of them clearly from new voters — and his top two opponents got only about 315,000, almost the same number as last time.

Note that LePage’s vote total was not just significantly higher than his own 2010 performance, but even higher than Mitt Romney’s total in the state in 2012. It is enough to make one wonder whether Democrats might have to start worrying about the state turning purple or Red in 2016 or the elections to follow.

Bottom Line: So, is there anything particularly interesting to be gained from the stories of these three states? One note is simply that Republicans seem to be getting their act together on voter turnout in a couple of important states — a good sign looking ahead to 2016.

The other simply adds another layer of ridicule to President Obama’s post-election press conference — the one in which he claimed some kind of mandate from the non-voters. Both opinion polls of adults (not likely voters) and the results in states with high turnout refute the idea that there is some “silent non-voting majority” out there supporting Obama. His presidency has very little popular support at this point, nor will it have much again, since he will never have another billion-dollar marketing campaign to bolster him.

This election was a rather thorough repudiation of his work so far. He risks a lot by pushing his luck with new executive power-grabs now.