Saturday, October 30, 2010

It’s The Turnout, Dummy!

Do you remember voting on November 4, 2008? I sure do. That was the day my name was on the ballot as a candidate for the Richmond City school board. It was my first (and probably last) time as a candidate and I intended to make the most of it. I got up early to get to the polls before they opened so I could vote early and then do some last minute electioneering. I live in Richmond’s precinct 402, which votes at the Forest Hill Presbyterian Church. Guess what? I did not get to vote early. When I arrived at the intersection of Forest Hill Avenue and W. 44th Street it was 5:45 AM. I saw a huge line of voters circling around the church parking lot and then proceeding west down Forest Hill Avenue. It looked like the whole neighborhood was out there waiting for the polls to open.

Do you remember voting on November 3, 2009? I do. That day I was covering the 402nd precinct for my friend Betsy Carr (now Delegate Betsy Carr). I got up early to get to the polls and introduce myself to the election workers as the precinct captain. When I arrived at the intersection of Forest Hill and 44th it was pretty quiet; just a few people in line. And it stayed that way for most of the day. The voting line never got outside the doors to the church.

So, what’s this about, beside the memories of a not-so-young man? Well, it’s about all those voters in line in 2008 who found things to do other than voting on Election Day 2009. Those voters won the election for Barack Obama (and lots of other Democrats) in 2008. Those non-voters won the election for Bob McDonnell (and lots of other Republicans) in 2009. And, they did so without leaving the comfort of their own homes.

We in the Commonwealth elect our governors and other state wide officials in the year after the national presidential election. Although this partially immunizes our statewide elections from national trends, it also results in a significant drop in voter turnout in these odd year elections. The smallest turnout drop—from 77.6% to 66.5%, a drop of 11.1%--was from 1988 to 1989. The largest drop—from 74.5% to 40.4%, a drop of 34.1%--was from 2008 to 2009. (Hey, weren’t these the very elections I was talking about above?)

So, from 2008 to 2009 voter turnout in Virginia dropped 34.1%, the largest one year decrease since at least 1976. Why is this significant? It wouldn’t be if the drop in turnout was evenly divided between the two major parties. If the drop in turnout had been 34.1% of those voting Republican and 34.1% of those voting Democratic, then Creigh Deeds, Jody Wagner and Steve Shannon would be the top elected officials of the Commonwealth. However, the drop in turnout was not even close to being even. (At this point, I need to move from turnout percentages to raw numbers. Since we don’t register by party in Virginia we cannot know the turnout percentage by party.)

In 2008, Democrats Obama and Biden drew 1,959,532 votes in the presidential election, the most ever cast for president and vice president in Virginia.* The second most votes ever cast for president and vice president in Virginia was 1,725,005 for Republicans McCain and Palin in the same 2008 election.

A year later, Republican Bob McDonnell received 1,163,651 votes for governor. This was about 560,000 votes less than cast for McCain and Palin the year before. Democrat Creigh Deeds received only 818,950 votes in 2009, a drop of over 1.1 million votes from those cast for Obama and Biden in 2008. (The votes received by Deeds were the lowest for any candidate for governor since the 1997 election.) In percentage terms, Mr. McDonnell received about 33% less votes than the top of the Republican ticket in 2008. Mr. Deeds, however, received about 58% less votes than the top of the Democratic ticket in 2008. Looking at it another way, Creigh Deeds’ drop in votes from those voting Democratic in 2008 was about 540,000 more than Bob McDonnell’s drop in votes from those voting Republican in 2008.

So, dear reader, where were these 540,000 voters (who voted for Obama and Biden in 2008) on November 3, 2009? First, as I pointed out after the 2008 election, it was the Obama campaign that won the election, not the Democratic Party. Dems Heading For A Big Fall? That means that the Obama campaign did not attract a large number of new people who would vote Democratic in the future. Second, the Democratic Party in Virginia was very complacent after the 2008 election. As I pointed out then, the talk was of how easy it was going to be to capture the House of Delegates and make Virginia a fully blue state. Nobody even considered that the Democrats might lose the governorship. Third, the hard fought Democratic primary campaign in the Spring of 2009 produced a lot of anger in the losers that was not dissipated before the election. Further, many of those who voted for Moran or McAuliffe in the primary were personally loyal to either of those two but not necessarily to the Democratic Party.

So what does this mean for the upcoming election? If you voted for President Obama in 2008 but you stayed home last year, you need to remember that you helped elect the current crew in Richmond. If you voted for President Obama in 2008 and you stay home this year, you will assure that the Democrats you elected to the House of Representatives will be one term wonders. You will also assure that President Obama will face a hostile Republican-controlled Congress for the next two years and will have almost no chance of getting any more of his agenda accomplished. It’s up to you because this election will be all about turnout.

My thanks to former Richmond Commonwealth Attorney David Hicks for enlightening me about these turnout issues.

*The most votes ever cast for any candidate in Virginia was 2,369,327 for Mark Warner for United States Senate, also in the 2008 election.

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