Monthly Archives: May 2010

Did Democrat Turnout “Fall Off the Cliff” In Last Tuesday’s Primaries?

Pundits are busy parsing the results from three recent statewide primaries in Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana held last Tuesday.  Much of the focus has been on how well candidates backed by the Tea Party did. Of more interest to me, however, is the relative turnout among Democrats and Republicans. At first glance, the results don’t seem to bode well for the Democrats.  Thus, Reid Wilson, writing for Hotline On Call, in his article titled “Dem Turnout Falls Off a Cliff”, notes that “Turnout among Dem voters dropped precipitously in 3 statewide primaries on Tuesday, giving the party more evidence that their voters lack enthusiasm ahead of midterm elections.”

Well, maybe. I’ve written before about the dangers of generalizing from a limited base of comparison, particularly given the idiosyncratic nature of midterm primary elections.  With this in mind, is it the case that headlines trumpeting a collapse in Democrat turnout on Tuesday are justified? Note that Wilson draws his conclusion in part by comparing turnout in Tuesday’s Senate primaries with turnout in previous statewide elections for different offices, such as Governor, in these states.  This comparison is not ideal – far better, I think, to try to compare turnout to previous midterm Senate primary races. That is precisely what I’ve tried to do below, although I caution that I had to piece together data from different sources and so can’t be completely certain of the accuracy of all these figures, although most are drawn directly from state records.

To start, I thought it might be interesting to see how the overall statewide turnout in these three states compares to previous midterm primaries, including the last “wave” midterm election in 1994.   In the following table, I’ve pasted the overall turnout (not just turnout for Senate races) of registered votes in the statewide primary elections in all three states for elections in 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2010 – all midterm elections.

State 1994 – Primary Turnout Statewide 2002 – Statewide Primary 2006 – Statewide Primary 2010 – Statewide Primary
North Carolina 13% 21% 12% 14.3%
Indiana 31% 22% 19% Not Released Yet
Ohio 33% 19.4% 24.28% 22.3%

It does not appear, then, that turnout in these three set of statewide elections is abnormally low, although neither does it approach the levels achieved in the “wave” election of 1994, at least in Indiana and Ohio.  (Interestingly, North Carolina did not have much of a turnout boost in 1994.)  But this does not tell us whether Democrat turnout has dropped off while Republican turnout is up.  Unfortunately, none of these states provides a partisan breakdown of turnout.  To get some leverage on the question, I went back to look at actual turnout in previous Senate primaries in these states.  All data is drawn from state election records, but in most cases I had to add up totals by hand, so reader beware. Note that all I can provide for now is absolute vote totals – not percentage turnout by party.

Here’s what I found, broken down by state:


In 2006, 747,404 votes were cast in the Ohio Democratic primary race for the Senate, won by Sherrod Brown, although it was not a tightly contested race. In the more hotly contested 1994 Democrat Senate primary, however, in which Joel Hyatt narrowly beat Mary Boyle, there were 934,891 votes cast.  This past Tuesday, however, despite a closer primary battle between Lee Fisher and Jennifer Bruner, turnout in the Democrat primary only numbered 673, 597.  So it appears there was a drop in Democratic turnout this past Tuesday from previous years.

INDIANA – REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY 2010, 2006 and 1998 (partial)

In what was essentially a three-candidate contest on Tuesday for the Republican Senate nomination, 527,036 voters cast ballots in an election won by former Senator Dan Coats. In 2006, incumbent Senator Richard Lugar ran essentially unopposed in the Republican primary and drew 393,960 votes.  In 1998, when Coats decided to step down as Senator, Republicans waged a tightly contested primary fight eventually won by Paul Helmke, who was defeated by Evan Bayh in the general election. Helmke received 129,309 votes in the Republican primary compared to his main rival’s 124,005, but I have not been able to get the overall totals for that primary as yet.   With this caveat, it looks like turnout was up in Indiana among Republicans on Tuesday.


Despite a closely contested Democratic primary between Elaine Marshal and Cal Cunningham this past Tuesday, only 423,453 voters cast ballots, with no candidate reaching the 40% threshold for avoiding a runoff election. In 2002, in contrast, 645,070 turned out in the Democrat Senate primary won by Erskine Bowles, who then went on to lose to Republican Elizabeth Dole in the general election.  In 1998, John Edwards (remember him?) won the North Carolina Democrat Senate primary in which 540,031 voters cast ballots.  Again, it appears that Democrat turnout is down last Tuesday.

It does appear, then, that historically speaking Democrat voter intensity, at least in these two Senate primaries in Ohio and North Carolina, was down this past Tuesday, while Republican turnout was up in Indiana.  But I caution you not to read too much into this quite yet.  I am not that familiar with all the candidates involved in these races, nor can I say much about contextual factors in each state that might have influenced overall turnout during past years.  These are three races with their own idiosyncrasies, so I hesitate to project voter enthusiasm by party for the 2010 midterms.

Nonetheless, if I were a Republican I would be pleased.  If a Democrat – maybe not.  As a political scientist, I want to see more data!

UPDATE: the link to the Wilson article I cite above was not working – it should be fixed now.

A Personal Comment

Hello all,

I want to take a moment to discuss a personal matter.

There’s a lot of rumors going around that the administration here at Middlebury College is set to announce in a few hours that the New Library will be named after me.  I want to set the record straight: if chosen, I will refuse the honor.

It’s true that I’ve contributed $1.55 or more to the New Library fund on a weekly basis, asking nothing in return (except maybe sometimes a cup of coffee). I’m not saying I don’t deserve the honor because, frankly, I do.  The Presidential Power blog alone is enough to merit naming a building after me.  And yet I teach classes and conduct research too!

But, as I’ve told my students many times, I’m not in this profession for the glory, or the meaningless awards.  No, to me seeing the tears run down the face of a first-year student as they grasp – truly grasp! – the significance of Federalist #10 – well, that’s all the reward I need. That and a few months off every summer.  And maybe during the academic year as well. Oh, and winter term too – I could use that off.

I want to thank everyone who lobbied on my behalf. And I admit it would have been nice to show my kids the new library with my name emblazoned above the door.   But in the end, what is more permanent?  A structure of bricks and mortar – or the knowledge imparted in this blog?

I think we know the answer to that.

The Tea Party: Racially or Economically Motivated?

My last post prompted a good exchange regarding the possible racial motivations of the Tea Party movement, and I want to respond here to some of the very perceptive comments. Polemarchus raised an excellent point: if the Tea Party movement is primarily concerned with the scale of government spending and increasing deficits occurring under Democrat control, why didn’t the movement arise earlier, when the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush turned a budget surplus into a series of deficits?  Before addressing this issue, some background on the Tea Party movement is in order.

The beginning of the Tea Party movement is often traced to a diatribe by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli in February 2009 during which he threatened to dump “derivatives” as part of a Chicago “Tea Party” protesting the Obama administration mortgage bailout plan. Santelli’s rant, which was widely circulated on YouTube, captured a growing anger among a segment of voters who were worried about the confluence of the growth in government spending against the backdrop of an economic recession. But why in February 2009? Why not five years before when the budget surpluses disappeared under the Bush administration?

The answer, I suspect, is the magnitude of the economic calamity, starting with the bursting of the housing bubble in the fall, 2008, and the Bush-Obama response to the subsequent financial meltdown triggered by the housing collapse. The combination of a global recession, rising unemployment, a series of highly publicized government “bailout” programs and unprecedented deficits triggered a wave of anxiety among a section of voters that was not there during the Bush years.

So it is the magnitude of the economic problems, I think, that worries the Tea Partiers.  Consider, for example, the budget deficit – it reappeared under the Bush administration, but it has more than tripled to a record high under President Obama and the Democrat majority in Congress.

Picture1Now, I am not trying to suggest this debt is unnecessary; it reflects government spending on a host of policies – the TARP program to bail out financial institutions, a jobs stimulus bill, bailouts of the auto industry, etc., that can be defended as economically necessary.  But the Tea Party supporters are concerned about how to pay for it.  Thus, according to the New York Times CBS poll, when asked what is the most important issue facing the nation today, 23% of Tea Partiers say the economy, which is the same proportion of adults more generally who cite this issue.  However, 11% of Tea Parties say it is the budget deficit, compared to only 5% of adults who mention this issue.  On the other hand, 22% of Tea Partiers cite jobs as the number one issue, compared to 27% of all adults.  A slightly bigger plurality of Tea Partiers than adults say they are “most angry” about the size of government or government spending. So it is government spending and the deficit in particular that seems to be driving this movement.

Adding to the anxiety I think, is that people don’t really feel they understand how this crisis occurred – discussion of derivatives and mortgage-backed securities are very confusing – and they worry, when they see headlines trumpeting economic troubles in Greece and Spain, that the United States is next in line to suffer economic collapse. As I’ve noted in previous posts, these types of anger-fueled social movements tend to arise in periods of economic dislocation, when people feel particularly anxious and, as Marty suggests, worry that events are out of control.  There’s a tendency to want to find someone or something to hold accountable for the events that have transpired.  In this case, it’s the party in power.  In 2008, that meant throwing the Republicans out.

In short, it is the perceived scale of the economic crisis inherited by Obama, and the Democrat response to that crisis in the form of increased spending, that explains why the Tea Party movement sprang up this past year, and not during the Bush administration.  At least I think that is a reasonable explanation.  To test that assumption, ask yourself whether this movement would have arisen if a Republican president – or if Hillary Clinton – was in office under the same conditions?  Those arguing that the Tea Party movement is racially motivated would likely say no.  Supporters would argue otherwise. I leave it to you to come to your own conclusion.

The more interesting issue, as I noted in the previous post, is whether this movement has the potential to influence the 2010 midterms.  I believe it does.  Surveys consistently show that Tea Party members are primarily focused on economic issues, rather than the more divisive social issues – abortion, gay marriage, school prayer – often associated with cultural conservatives.

In the New York Times poll, only 1% of Tea Partiers cited abortion as the most important issue, only 2% cited moral values, and another 1% mentioned immigration.  Religious values are mentioned by 3% of Tea Partiers, and by 1% of adults. None mentioned gay marriage. With the exception of religious values, these totals are identical to the views of all adults. In other words, when it comes to ranking the importance of cultural issues, Tea Partiers’ views are virtually indistinguishable from the general population. (Note: this is NOT the same as saying Tea Partiers cultural views are no different from all adults.  It is to say that cultural or moral issues are no more important to TP’ers than to all adults.) This suggests, then, that the movement is combining the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party with the more libertarian portion of the electorate, while downplaying the polarizing cultural issues that threatened to divide conservatives and drive moderates away.

More importantly, perhaps, that anger is directed at the incumbents in office.  Fully 91% of Tea Partiers, but only 46% of all adults, disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy.  Similarly, 91% of Tea Partiers (compared to 53% of all adults) disapprove of his handling of the federal budget.  Eighty nine percent say he has expanded the role of government too much (only 37% of adults agree). Thirteen percent of Tea Partiers cite “politicians/government” as the most important problem facing the nation, while only 4% of all adults do.  A whopping 96% of Tea Partiers disapprove of the job Congress is doing, compared to 73% of all adults. In short, although the Tea Party may not be affiliated with any particular party, its members’ wrath seems clearly targeted toward those in power.   It is perhaps telling for those who believe that this movement is primarily racially motivated that the TP’ers anger appears equally directed at Congress and the President.

Midterms tend to attract lower voter turnout, which means a greater proportion of the electorate will consist of attentive voters, which the Tea Partiers certainly are.  Although the movement is not institutionalized – it’s not running a formal slate of candidates – all it needs to do is get enough people to the polls to vote against the incumbents to make a difference in 2010.  At this point I don’t think that a movement supported by roughly 15-25% of those polled – no matter what their motivations – can be totally dismissed as politically inconsequential.

Are The Tea Partiers Racists?

A few weeks back I posted a brief summary of a Gallup Poll survey that compared the views and backgrounds of those in the Tea Party movement with a random sample of American adults. As the first survey of the Tea Party movement, the findings were of particular interest to me since – without The Cable – I hadn’t paid much attention to the movement.  I noted two important results from the Gallup survey: that demographically, Tea Party supporters did not differ dramatically from a random cross section of Americans, but that ideologically it was a distinctly conservative movement, with half of its support coming from the Republican Party.  I concluded by noting that in its broad outlines, the Tea Party phenomenon echoed previous social movements in American history, almost all of which arose during time of economic uncertainty.

The reaction to my post, particularly among my more progressive readers, was fascinating. Many emailed me directly to point out other survey data – most published after the Gallup results – that suggested the Tea Party movement was NOT a representative cross-section of Americans more generally.  In fact, Tea Party supporters are far more likely to be white.  Subsequent survey suggests that this is, indeed, the case, although the extent of the movement’s “whiteness” varies depending on how one defines and samples the Tea Party membership. (In defense of Gallup, their initial survey also suggested that Tea Partiers were slightly more likely to be white as well.)

I have now collected a half-dozen surveys on the Tea Party movement and hope to do a more extended analysis in a future blog. Of more immediate interest to me, however, is the subtext to this point regarding how “white” is the Tea Party movement.  As several readers suggested to me, the point is important because it indicates that the Tea Party supporters are also more likely to be racist!  I should be clear that it wasn’t only people writing me who made this claim – it was a point that was made by liberal pundits more generally in the aftermath of the Gallup poll in many columns (see, for example, here and here and here.)

The general sentiment on the Left expressed in these and other columns is well captured by E.J. Dionne, who writes:  “The tea party is nothing new. It represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics, and it will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections. …In fact, both parties stand to lose if they accept the laughable notion that this media-created protest movement is the voice of true populism.”  Moreover, Dionne goes on to suggest: “Part of the anger at President Obama among Tea Partiers does appear to be driven by racial concerns.”

The pushback by progressives against any notion that the Tea Partiers might be a broad-based social movement that share characteristics with previous political movements in American history is fascinating.  Why does the Tea Party movement inspire such vehemence, founded on charges of racism, from the Left?  Note that the fact that it is disproportionately white does not seem, by itself, to be a convincing explanation.  Recall that the 1992 Perot movement, to which I compared the Tea Party movement,  was even whiter, with one estimate putting the proportion of Perot supporters at 92% white.  In fact, as this columnist acknowledges, in terms of race, gender and education, Tea Party members are almost indistinguishable from Perot’s followers.

And both movements share a common policy platform consisting of fiscally conservative principles of small government, lower taxes and less spending.  Any yet there was much less, if any, intimation from the Left that the Perot movement was fueled by racism.  What explains the difference in perspective toward the two movements?

One answer, of course, is that there is convincing evidence that Tea Partiers are racist. That theme gained support on the Left after a New York Times/CBS poll showed that 25% of Tea Party supporters thought Obama’s policies favored blacks, compared to 11% of adults more generally who shared this view.  Moreover, 52% of Tea Partiers, but only 28% of all respondents, believe “In recent years, too much been made of the problems facing black people.”

For those on the Left, this is proof that the Tea Party movement is at least in part racially motivated. For Tea Partiers, however, the questions are not tapping into racial views – they are inciting policy views.  They note, for example, that fully 73% of Tea Parties believe blacks and whites have an equal chance of getting ahead in society.  Moreover, they point out that the Times poll also found that 65% of Tea Partiers believe Obama has treated blacks and white equally – not exactly evidence that the movement is dominated by racists.  It is far more likely, Tea Party supporters suggest, that these questions are tapping views regarding affirmative action in schools, diversity in hiring, and other race-related public policies.

Uncovering racial motives from survey questions is tricky business. (Next time you are at a cocktail party, ask all the racists in the room to raise their hands. See what I mean?)   So, without accepting or dismissing either interpretation, let me suggest four additional reasons, listed here in no particular order, that might explain the willingness of those on the Left to ascribe racist views toward Tea Partiers, but not to Perot’s followers, despite the two movements’ almost indistinguishable racial composition and economic policy views.

First, the Perot movement, like the Tea Party movement, directed its rage at incumbents.  In 1992, however, the President was Republican, but Congress was controlled by Democrats.  So the anti-incumbent fervor did not seem directed at any single party.  In the same vein, Perot’s followers were not drawn primarily from one party, while the Tea Party is at least half Republican and its members share a distinctly conservative perspective.  Perot, in contrast, drew heavily from moderates and liberals as well as conservatives.  It is easier for the Left to brand a predominantly white movement as racially-motivated when most of its members don’t share the Left’s ideological views.

Second, the fracturing of media discourse into many more ideologically-oriented sources on both cable and the internet, has contributed to an echo-chamber effect where those on the Left are exposed to an increasingly smaller, and more critical, view of the Tea Party movement than was the case in 1992 with Perot’s followers. These often consist of the more “newsworthy” pictures from protest rallies showing the crazier element in the Tea Party movement.  These images are cross-linked with like-minded sites, adding to the prevailing view that the Tea Partiers carry guns and crosses and spit on members of Congress.

Third, the Perot movement had a figurehead – Ross Perot – on which the media could focus its narrative.  Indeed, one of the media frames in 1992 centered on whether Perot was crazy, rather than his followers!  In contrast, it’s much harder for the media to develop a coherent and concise frame on a movement that seems so amorphous and unorganized and whose newsworthy events seem to be raucous rallies rather than statements of principle from the movement’s leader.  This allows progressives like Dionne and others to step into the media vacuum and define the Tea Party movement themselves.

Finally, one should not underestimate the importance of having an African-American president.  Simply put, many progressives sincerely believe that much of the criticism against Obama from the Right is rooted in racism, just as many on the Right sincerely believe that progressives are using charges of racism as a convenient excuse to deflect the Tea Party’s genuine substantive concerns.  Tea party supporters argue that it is simply easier for those on the Left to dismiss the Tea Party as a fringe movement rather than accept that it in fact derives its support mostly from those who are disenchanted with Obama’s and the Democratically-controlled Congress’ policies.

Unlike critics on the Left (and their critics on the Right) I don’t pretend to know the motivations of the Tea Party movement. And, lacking access to the sampling procedures underlying many of these polls, I am more hesitant than others to make blanket generalizations regarding the Tea Party based on a single set of poll questions. I’ll leave it to others to cherry pick those results that fit their ideological predispositions.

Instead, I want to suggest that trying to uncover the Tea Party’s motivations is not a very useful exercise. What we really want to know is whether Dionne and other progressives are right in asserting that the group will not have an impact in 2010. After looking at the polling data as a whole, I don’t believe he is – the Tea Party is a broad movement rivaling the Perot movement in strength and which is motivated by a very strong anti-incumbent fervor rooted in concerns about government spending and the deficit – the same issues on which Perot campaigned and won roughly one in five votes cast in the 1992 presidential election.  Efforts to paint Tea Partiers as a marginal group composed of bible-thumpers, racists and denture-wearing geriatrics hoping to turn back the clock to the “good old days” are not very helpful to Democrats if it leads them to dismiss voters’ substantive concerns. Racist or not, the Tea Party movement is composed disproportionately of affluent, well educated white males – precisely the attributes of individuals who are most likely to vote in any election.  In the absence of economic improvement, this bloc of strongly motivated voters, ranging in size from 15% to 25% of likely voters, may contribute to an electoral tidal wave in November’s midterms that could wash away the Democratic majority. An astounding 94% of the Tea Partiers surveyed in the NY Times poll believed it is time for new people in government (compared to 78% of all adults who believe this.)  Twenty-eight percent believe Congress is primarily to blame for the current state of the economy, and 34% believe it is responsible for the budget deficit, making Congress, even more than Obama or Bush, the primary source of the Tea Partiers’ ire. At a minimum, this suggests the movement has the potential to swing a significant number of seats away from the Democrat Party, potentially making the difference between a Republican or Democrat-controlled House and/or Senate come November.

It is still too early to make accurate predictions regarding the 2010 midterms, of course.  But I think progressives do themselves a disservice if they dismiss the potential impact of the Tea Party movement.