The Real Story?

I’m not sure whether this American University analysis is correct or not, but if it is, turnout was not the real story of the 2008 election:

Despite lofty predictions by some academics, pundits, and practitioners that voter turnout would reach levels not seen since the turn of the last century, the percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots in the 2008 presidential election stayed at virtually the same relatively high level as it reached in the polarized election of 2004.

…[B]ased, in part, on nearly final but unofficial vote tabulations as compiled by the Associated Press as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 5, the percentage of Americans who cast ballots for president in this year’s presidential election will reach between 126.5 million and 128.5 million when all votes have been counted by early next month.

If this prediction proves accurate, turnout would be at either exactly the same level as in 2004 or, at most, one percentage point higher (or between 60.7 percent and 61.7 percent).

A caveat: the AU study left out California and several other states. Whether that projection proves right or not, this chart is noteworthy; click to enlarge:


The parties’ shares are shown as percentages of eligible voters. What is striking about the chart is how variable Republican voting is, and how steadily, in contrast, the Democrats’ share has grown since the low point of 1980. The history we see reflected in the chart is really the history of the Democratic Party. The Democrats suffered a huge falloff as a result of their premature embrace of leftism in the 1960s. “Amnesty, acid and abortion” caused large numbers of Democrats to leave the party and start voting Republican, as we see in the 1968 and 1972 numbers. But the Democrats rebounded sharply in 1976.

What followed was the debacle of the Carter presidency, which sent the Democrats’ share tumbling again in 1980. From that low point, however, the Democrats have steadily rebuilt, with their gains accelerating in the last election.

One could account for these trends in a couple of ways. One possibility is that the Democrats are just now regaining a “natural” level of support among the electorate, which was temporarily depressed by the events noted above. If I were a Democrat, I would perhaps lean toward this explanation.

The other possibility, I think, is that cultural forces push the Democrats forward relentlessly, except for occasions when their policies have clearly and undeniably failed. By “cultural forces” I mean the Democrats’ monopoly or near-monopoly over newspapers, news agencies, network television, the universities and public schools, Hollywood, women’s television and magazines, late-night comedy, the music industry, and so forth.

If this surmise is correct, Republicans are in trouble unless one of two things happens: either the Obama administration turns out to be a disaster that cannot be spun, like the Carter administration, which is not something we can hope for, let alone count on, or Republicans find a way to become more competitive in the culture.

This last task will of course be difficult, but it might not be hopeless. As Paul noted on Wednesday, many voters continue to identify themselves as conservatives. More data to the same effect here; despite everything, conservatives still outnumber liberals by around fifty percent. Of course, the goalposts are probably moving, so that what counts as “conservative” today is different from what it was thirty years ago.

Still, the data suggest that many voters are open to conservative ideas. But they need to hear them applied to Republican policies in ways that are neither the target of a smear nor the punch line of a joke. If Republicans can’t make inroads into the culture, the Democrats will continue to ride the up escalator.

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