Generally I prefer not to blog about my academic work, partly because I'm convinced that this site is going to get me fired someday but largely because what I do isn't very interesting to…humans, I think, unless they are political scientists. But in the process of collecting data for a new project, I came across some interesting stats on 2010.

One thing that I find amazing about the literature in political science is how little we know about non-voters. We have a decent-plus understanding of voters' preferences, ideological tendencies, and so on, and the same cannot be said about the substantial portion of the potential electorate that doesn't participate. Things like exit polls, for example, are integral to post-election analysis (both popular and academic) and they exclude non-voters by definition. There is some new interesting work on the voter/non-voter divide (Diana Mutz has a book coming out soon) but for decades we've been assuming, or arguing with varying degrees of success, that the preferences of the two groups are essentially the same. I have always found this patently stupid.

Lately I've been doing a lot of research into creative ways to show evidence of differential turnout – the idea that overall turnout doesn't change much from election to election but different groups of people are voting each time. For example, Obama Mania and the lameness of the McCain campaign made a lot of Republicans stay home in 2008, whereas in 2004 Republicans were highly energized while the Democrats had a hard time rallying turnout behind John Kerry. I've always considered this the most plausible explanation for changes in election outcomes over time. And in theory this narrative explains 2010 very well; Democratic voters got all fired up and turned out in droves in 2008. Then two years of Obama being a big ol' letdown to the left and a hideous monster to the right led us to 2010, when Democratic-leaning voters were apathetic and the GOP/Tea Party brimmed with enthusiasm. Makes sense, but does it match the data?

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) is a new, very large sample survey that has been a real boon to voting behavior research. In 2010 the sample was over 55,000 whereas the old stand-by (American National Election Study) has about 1200. Briefly setting aside the valid question about whether people report voter turnout honestly on surveys – hint: they don't – here is a breakdown of self-reported ideology among voters and non-voters in the 2010 CCES sample. Click any graph to embiggen:

It is hardly surprising that a much larger percentage of non-voters consider themselves "middle of the road", as apathy toward participation is often a by-product of apathy toward politics in general. But note how a considerably larger portion of voters consider themselves "conservative" or "very conservative" – more than double the share of non-voters in each category. Compare that to 2006 – when the ideology question had only five categories instead of seven, but you get the picture:

In the last midterm the ideological distribution of voters and non-voters is quite similar, with voters only slightly more conservative than non-voters. Even more interesting, here is the ideological placement of Barack Obama among voters and non-voters. In other words, survey participants are also asked to identify how they would describe the ideology of major political figures like the President, their reps in Congress, and so on:

Wow. I checked these number about five times because they are so lopsided. Of people who reported voting in 2010, more than half described Obama as "very liberal" whereas barely 25% of non-voters described him that way. The question is subjective, of course, but that's the point. The people who voted in 2010 appear to be disproportionately drawn from the ranks of people who think Barack "The Eisenhower Republican" Obama is the commie-libro-marxisocialist child of Fidel Castro and ACORN. Unfortunately the same question is not available from 2006 re: George W. Bush. They did ask a generic presidential approval rating question, though:

Again we see a roughly similar distribution – voters exceeded non-voters at the extreme points, i.e. they were more likely than non-voters to either really like or really dislike Bush. What we don't see is the heavily skewed distribution we see in the 2010 Obama Ideology question (although it bears re-emphasizing the differences in the two questions).

This small slice of the CCES data from 2010 supports the hypothesis that voters and non-voters were ideologically dissimilar and had very different perceptions of the incumbent President and Congress. It suggests that finding a way to recreate the enthusiasm for participation that Democratic-minded people showed in 2008 – or even 2006, when voters and non-voters were essentially even – is a necessary component of Obama and his party avoiding disaster in 2012. Something tells me that slogans and slick marketing won't be enough this time.

34 thoughts on “ENTHUSIASM”

  • Yea, whereas in 2008, people voted FOR Obama, in 2012, Obama will need them to get out and vote AGAINST the Republicans….

    Obama will need at least two our of four things to win in 2012:

    1) A legislative/policy win between now and the election;

    2) A noticeably improved economic climate between now and the election;

    3) The ability to articulate and sell his first term accomplishments in the campaign;

    4) The ability to make everyone scared of the Republican candidate.

    The first two being unlikely, Obama will need to rely on 3 and 4. As insane as it is to make predictions this early, I'm calling an Obama win in 2012, in a very close election.

  • Screamin' Demon says:

    Mitt "Who did I say I was yesterday, 'cause I sure ain't him today!" Romney will be the GOP nom, and Obama will eat his lunch.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    The latest survey, and the large sample used by it, indicate that non-voters are "saner" than any other group. Basically, non-voters are centrist.

    Since American conservatives are by and large extremist and American liberals are by and large social democrats (i.e. right wing liberals), the non-voters may still rescue this country (if they vote).

    Eisenhower was not inapt and was a decent negotiators.

  • Christopher says:

    I think you are on to something here. Keep at it. This is a great theory that just needs more data to support it. I was a number-lovin' political science guy in a prior life too, and so can appreciate your enthusiasm.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Now that Huntsman is in, with Perry for contrast, Obama could very well lose. Hell, he might lose against the Romney/Citizens United ticket. No base left, no constituency, they'll stay home even though they believe Obama's the only sane one in the race. They just won't be able to bring themselves to pull the lever for the Great Disappointment. As Ed's research indirectly implies.

    I for one will finally read one of Obama's books–the one he writes as a former one-termer. Will he really get what happened to him? I'm sure he's capable of admitting error–at least in print, in a kind of rumination, and he does have the pride of a writer to take the empyrean view.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Sometimes, even more than enthusiasm, fear is a great motivator. And it can be for Liberals, too.

    Look at the turnout in 2010 that came out and voted against that Liberal/Socialist/Communist/Fascist/Godless/Heathen/AntiChrist/Muslim/
    ReverendWright-listening/Sharia-Loving/Kenyan Usurper.

    Now, if we can get the people in the whole country to realize how much the people in their own states hate their newly-elected Republican Governors – like Krispy Kreme Christie, Darth Walker, Kleagle Kasich, and Dreadful Scott, maybe we can still keep the Presidency, and at least on House of Congress.

    Also, too, please keep in mind that Consevatives know these non-voter statistics as well, which is why they're trying to make it easier for non-voters to remain non-voters, and more difficult for the non-voters to vote. Especially the younger, non-white flavors. Voter suppression efforts are all over the place. It's really the only way the Republicans can keep winning.

    If the GOP can be held to be responsible for trying to end Medicare and SS, then the seniors may help us keep Democrats in DC.

    On the other hand, if Obama and the Democrats decide to capitulate, and join the GOP in some BS bi-partisan effort at changing (ending) Medicare and SS, the Republicans will attack from the LEFT, and win the Presidency, and huge majorites in both Houses.
    If the Democrats go along with this effort, they will have committed suicide. They've been virtually useless for decades, and if they don't stand up for core programs that THEY themselves created, they they are goners – and should be.
    Except for one thing – with Republican in charge again, then we are truly well fucked, and all but buried.
    We'll have a new 'Pledge of Allegience.'
    "I pledge allegience to the flag,
    And the United States of Amerikkka,
    And to the white Republic for which it stands,
    One nation, UNDER GOD!,
    Indivisible, UNDER GOD!,
    With liberty, FROM GOD,
    And justice, FROM GOD,
    Oh, did I mention GOD yet?
    For all.
    Who are deemed worthy that is!
    By GOD!!!
    As told to us."

    If you're interested in the real pledge, written by a SOCIALIST minister, and the changes since the original, you can check it out here:

  • I think the Internet/Netroots Nation echo chamber has significantly oversold the "Left's" dissatisfaction with Obama. Most liberal voters still like him just fine. And in key battleground states in the Midwest the odious nature of Kasich/Snyder/Walker will do more to help Obama than Mitten's job destroying record as a business man.

    Republicans seem much more likely to force themselves into an artificial rapture over their candidate, but does anyone really LIKE Romney? How are they not facing an enthusiasm problem of their own?

    Having said that, Romney is the only one who keeps it close, methinks. Few elected presidents have lost re-election: Hoover, Carter and Bush, Sr. While the economy doomed all three, all three saw the economy tank DURING their Presidency, not before. And Carter barely won in '76 anyway.

    While all was "Obama sucks" at the New Hampshire debate, at some point someone will have to take on Romney – and he's very vulnerable among the GOP electorate.

  • It's fascinating to watch the evolution, not just of politicians, but also of popular perseptions of politicians. When Obama was running, I was telling everyone I knew that he wasn't as liberal as he spoke, and he certainly wasn't as liberal as the GOP presented him, based on what was known of his record (ie what he did, as opposed to what he said). During his term so far, I became convinced that I was right – that Obama was essentially a Rockefeller Republican in the mode of Eisenhower, perhaps, but without Eisenhower's strengths (experience, self-sufficiency, determination, willingness to stand on principle when needed, ability to get recalcitrant people to see (and do) things his way, etc). Now, as we approach the next election, I see I was wrong. Obama is actually a dyed-in-the-wool post-Nixon Democrat. He has taken a seemingly unbeatable position and thrown it away. Here we are, discussing his possible (and soon likely?) defeat at the hands of whichever God-awful meatbag the GOP puts up as The Great White Hope. When your campaign slogan is "Hey, I'm not as bad as the other side", you're well down the road to rearly retirement.

  • Here is where I see Romney losing (as opposed to Obama winning) Many of those "very Conservative" voters also tend to be very Evangelical (Sorry if that is too broad) & they still consider Mormonism to be a cult.

    Also it will be interesting to see these charts after 2012 & whether anyone notices that Obama is centrist at best, not "very Liberal."

    He isn't "very" anything…

  • Ed, I'm curious. Do you have any idea how many apathetic, non-voting Republicans are nominally liberal? i.e. pro-choice, anti-war, anti-racism, pro gay marriage types. Because I'm thinking our efforts might be directed there.

  • Neal Deesit says:

    "I think the Internet/Netroots Nation echo chamber has significantly oversold the "Left's" dissatisfaction with Obama. Most liberal voters still like him just fine. "

    A straw poll conducted [at Netroots Nation '11 in Minneapolis] by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research showed that 80 percent either approve or strongly approve of the president more than a year before voters head to the polls to decide whether he deserves a second term. The results broke down to 27 percent strongly approving of Obama and 53 percent approving “somewhat.” Thirteen percent said they “somewhat disapprove,” and 7 percent strongly disapprove of the president.

  • johnsmith1882 says:

    @Middle Seaman: I don't see how having no opinion makes one "saner". Maybe these people have bought into "both sides are just as bad" but how does someone go through life without having formed an opinion on American politics unless one is completely uninterested and uninformed. Uninterested and uninformed would be my take on this group, rather than more sane than those on the extremes, but this take comes from one of the extremes, so I'm open to suggestions. On a related note, shouldn't the Democratic party be this groups wet dream then, all stuck in the middle and wishy washy? Seems like a match made in heaven (hell) if your take is valid.

  • anotherbozo says:

    @ johnsmith and Middle Seaman: If citizens having "no opinion" = the "undecideds" in the last couple of elections–the ones put into a focus group by the networks and interviewed as a group–they're certifiably dumb as bricks. Clueless. Tonight Show "Jaywalk" material. Special needs adults.

  • Hmmm. People that don't vote. My favorite subject. I get hate mail on this one..

    Not voting needs to be against the law. Voting is not a right, it is a responsibility. If you don't vote, you get to spend a night in jail/pay a fine. Don't even try to say that you can't force people to vote, the government forces people to pay taxes and in the past has forced men to serve in the armed forces.

    Or how about tying it to taxes since Republicans like tax cuts so much…….no voting receipt, no standard deduction on your taxes…….I'm just saying.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Good points, I like it!
    I think it's Australia that fines people who don't vote.

  • Am I missing something here? It sounds like Ed is saying each party needs to mobilize their base. Don't we know that already?

    Here's the thing. The reason 2010 went the GOP's way is because liberal voters to a large extent don't vote in midterms. And also, Obama wasn't running in November 2010, Senator McFuckWithYou from the Tea Party was running. A large number of people don't care about those elections, they just don't. They should but the people who don't live, breathe and eat this stuff day in and day out really aren't that fired up about Congressional elections, it's all that noise they purposely try to tune out.

    But a lot of people did vote FOR Obama in 2008, and they'll make the effort to vote for him in 2012 too.

    I campaigned for Kerry in 2004, and then I campaigned for the Democrats in 2006, and there was just a huge difference between a presidential election and a midterm, in terms of people's interest. I canvassed, I went door to door, I registered voters and made phone calls both times, and there are just a huge number of people who don't give a shit in off years.

    There's a whole huge educational opportunity that needs to happen for Dems to get their base to pay attention and vote in off years.

  • I'm ok with being forced at gunpoint to vote in this fake broken system, if me writing 'FUCK OFF' across the ballot is considered a legal vote.

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Sluggo, sticks don't work. Carrots always work. More bribes. That's the all-American way of how to get out the vote. Instead of decrying the practice, let's use it.

  • @Some Guy
    If you don't like the choices, leave the ballot blank or write in the candidate of your choice. Your not being forced at gunpoint, only your freedom or wallet should be threatened.

  • It's nice that authoritarian bootlickers exist on both sides of the fake political spectrum. You keep fucking that chicken, Sluggo.

  • If you don't like the choices, leave the ballot blank or write in the candidate of your choice.

    Indeed. One more than one occasion that candidate has been of the four-legged, floppy-eared, waggy-tailed variety.

    I would never not vote. I'm sure there are elections I missed back when I was in college or clueless and in my 20s but my parents always instilled in me the importance of voting and jury duty. You were the lowest scumbag on the planet if you tried to get out of either one. The notion of "civic DUTY" was drilled into us from a young age.

    And you know, for all the whining and haranguing we hear about "my rights MY RIGHTS" in the discourse these days, no one ever talks about their RESPONSIBILITIES. Because you can't have one without the other.

    People need to wake the fuck up. You can't take this shit for granted. We need to really start drilling this stuff into people's heads, everyone. The Liberal Base, young people, you name it. You don't NOT VOTE. That is just NOT DONE.

  • How about after factoring in age?

    "The only thing old people do is judge you and vote." -Doug Stanhope

  • At this point in the 1984 cycle, Reagan had approval ratings in the 30s and 40s and Democrats were salivating at how badly he was going to lose.

    Obama will beat the crap out of Romney.

  • I'd be interested in the potential outcomes of deportation for not voting.

    On the other hand, aren't we forgetting on some level that potentially 49% of the voting-eligible American population are simply too dumb/selfish/ignorant/lazy/foolish/rich/poor/crazy/etc. to trust with making any kind of worthwhile decision.

    On the third hand, I never fail to remind those that sooo much of what perplexes because it seems SO Eeeeaaasy to figure is the way it is because that is the way the powers that be want it. Sure, not on a novus ordo seclorum/rocksolid multigenerational level, but on the level that–as beyond fucked as things certainly to appear to the average bear–the bears who are not only doing just fine but in fact better than EVER are certainly doing what they can to keep status as quo as practicable.

    So, on the fourth hand, in light of the third, accepting the second, and recognizing the very unlikely first: Sometimes we just have to let the evil bastards crash the fucking plane into the mountain because they just can't stop speculating on the parachute market long enough to actually fucking sell one, let alone take one, or indeed turn or let someone else turn the plane around, if you're trackin' me.

    At the end of the current run of days, I just hope my sons dont' end up killing some Chinamen's sons or vice versa in twenty years because we never started fixing the fixable in concert with a bunch of rich corksmoakers figure a way to have a 'limited police action' betwixt us and China over fossil fuels that belon to neither of us…

  • @Sluggo and C U: Aus does have a fine if you are registered and don't vote. Personal experience says that at the state level you'd better either vote or pay that fine because they don't mess around if you don't and will suspend your license. For a country as apathetic to anything that doesn't involve beer and a BBQ it helps.

    We also have a parliamentary system so that from time to time independents and minor parties can hold a balance of power. Now is one of those times. Right now 4 ppl and anyone in the Labor Party can torpedo the Govt and force an election.

    What always annoyed me about the US system is that election cycle is altogether too short. Every two years, here comes more hogwash n rhetoric. I think people just try to tune out. Overhauling the system to get rid of Midterms could probably help more than anything with voter apathy.

  • Don't forget the GOP is now working very hard to disenfranchise "those people" (the poor, minorities, immigrants) through voter ID laws, redistricting, etc. (Too tired to provide links…)

    As for "centrists" being the saner ideology: No. Centrism is the belief that whatever the two positions, the correct answer is "half way in between."

    One reason we're all fucked is that dismantling the New Deal is now the Centrist position, exactly half way between the Democrats ("Let's tinker around the margins and call it progress") and the Republicans ("Let's boil the poor and eat them").

  • @Southern Beale
    I don't think it is obvious at all to Obama that he needs to rally his base. He seems to be operating under the median voter theory that if he just moves far enough to the right, he'll get to 50%+1 and thereby win. Instead of throwing the left red meat to rally around, he chides them for being unrealistic, something you never see the Republicans do. Obama just doesn't realize that for every 1 "centrist" he wins over, he loses several in his base who drop out due to lack of enthusiasm. This has been exacerbated by how successful the Republicans have been in dragging the goalposts(and with them, the "center") to the right.

  • "Obama just doesn't realize that for every 1 'centrist' he wins over, he loses several in his base who drop out due to lack of enthusiasm"

    The 'base' as envisioned in this comment isn't remotely as big as it would need to be for this to work.

  • "The 'base' as envisioned in this comment isn't remotely as big as it would need to be for this to work."

    The point of the original article is that it actually is IF you can get that base to vote in at least equal proportion to their prevalence in the general population. See 2006 as an excellent example. People only assume that this is a "center-right nation" because a disproportionate number of very conservative people show up to vote.

    You don't get the distribution to swing back in the left's favor by constantly moving to the center in ways that don't even impress the giant pool of apathetic voters. Obama, like many others in the democratic party, have internalized a sense of being in the minority when they aren't.

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