A decent interval having passed since Election Day, here are some rearview-mirror thoughts about the state of our national politics. I found myself surprised by some developments and, as always, hopeful if uncertain about the future.
- Fewer of us voted than expected.
- Demographics have changed the electorate.
- Social norms and trends were important.
- Campaigning itself changed from the past.
- Present trends do not necessarily project into the future.
Fewer Americans voted: The United States has been in several-year economic distress. National and state-level candidates, party-affiliated groups, and independent committees poured unprecedented monies into the campaigns. Voter turnout activities reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Partisan fevers ran high. Yet, in the end, a lower percentage of eligible voters nationally cast ballots than in either 2004 or 2008.
Some 126 million voted in the election, about 57.5 percent of eligible voters. That compared to 62.3 percent who voted in 2008 and 60.4 percent in 2004. President Obama's vote total was substantially lower than in 2008. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's vote was lower than Sen. John McCain's four years ago, although the falloff was not so great as for Obama.
Only Iowa and Louisiana, among the 50 states, had higher turnout rates than four years ago. States with the highest turnout rates were either "battleground states" — where media expenditures and campaign activity were strongest — or had high-visibility races below the presidential level. This was the case, for instance, in Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in a tightly contested U.S. Senate race. The lowest turnout rate nationally was in Obama's home state of Hawaii. where only 43.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Will this lowered participation rate continue? We'll have to examine the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential-election data to know. But I, for one, was surprised to find the rate falling as it did this year. I'd have bet strongly otherwise before Election Day.
Voting patterns reflected changing demographics: The groups carried by Romney would have been more than sufficient in earlier years to bring him a one-sided victory. He carried the following constituencies: white voters, male voters, voters older than 45, married voters, college graduates, those with incomes above $50,000, independents, conservatives, Republicans, suburbanites, small-town and rural voters, Protestants, and regular churchgoers. But Obama won majorities among women voters, voters younger than 45, black, Asian, Latino, Catholic and Jewish voters, gay voters, unmarried voters, working mothers and parents of children under 18, high-school-educated-or-less voters, the postgraduate-educated, those with incomes below $50,000, Democrats, liberals, moderates, and urban voters. There, of course, are overlaps among all these voting groups.
Latino voters were big difference-makers for Obama. He won 71 percent of the growing Latino vote. This, in part, could be laid to Romney's and Republicans' identification with tough immigration-law enforcement (as well as intense Democratic media and other campaigning in the constituency). I was surprised by Obama's percentages among Asian voters (73 percent) Jewish voters (69 percent) and, to a lesser degree, Catholics (50 percent). Asian and Catholic voters, as Latinos, are traditionally more family-oriented and associated with traditional values than the general electorate. The Catholic electorate has changed — with fewer regular, observant members — but the heavy number of Latinos among Catholics no doubt brought Obama his small margin there. Many Jewish voters had been concerned with the administration's tensions with the present Israeli government but, in the end, traditional party loyalty and liberal social values seem to have carried for Obama.
Social norms have changed: Democrats ran effective, targeted appeals to young, unmarried women in particular. Obama carried 62 percent of unmarried women voters and even stronger percentages among the youngest in this group. Abortion and contraception got high public visibility as issues impacting these voters but less attention was paid to the degree to which government support benefits flow to this group -- especially to those with children. Marked changes have taken place in this constituency. In 1960, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5 percent of live births were to an unmarried mother. In 2011 the number was 41 percent and, among African Americans, 72 percent. Unmarried mothers voted 70 percent for Obama this year. The poverty rate is high for single mothers with children. Their lifelines, in many cases, are government-funded programs associated with Democrats.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!