Summary: Non-voters are our largest political “party”, mostly ignored by gurus in the new media. Neither the Left or Right has successfully appealed to them. The first two do so with even modest success will dominate our government, perhaps for generations.
Graph by Andrew Gelman (Prof Statistics & Political Science, Columbia) from his website.
- About our largest party…
- … the key to political dominance
- About those demographics
- A mass movement that captures a party
- For More Information
(1) About our largest party …
From “Refusing to vote either red or blue” by Andrew Gelman, New York Daily News, 8 November 2012 — “Some 40% of eligible voters stayed away on Tuesday or cast ballots for third-party candidates”
When it comes to public opinion, the story is different. The Democrats may well benefit in 2014 and 2016 from the anticipated slow but steady recovery of the economy over the next few years — but, as of 6 November 2012, the parties are essentially tied, with Barack Obama receiving 51% of the two-party vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 49%, a split comparable to Al Gore’s narrow victory in 2000, Richard Nixon’s in 1968, and John Kennedy’s in 1960. Over the next few months, you will be hearing a lot about Obama’s non-mandate, and rightly so.
But here I want to talk about a slightly different split of the voting-eligible population: the approximately 30% who voted for Obama, the nearly identical number who chose Romney, and the 40% who did not vote at all or who voted for minor-party candidates.
Update from the comments: SDW points us to “Nonvoters: Who They Are, What They Think“, Pew Research, 1 November 2012.
(2) … the key to political dominance in America
Our two parties major parties are almost equal. Small factors determine who wins each election. Such as the slow GDP growth that gave the winning edge to Obama, geopolitical events, even the geographic distribution of votes.
Our winner take all system can magnifies even small wins in the popular votes into large outcomes in Congress (although not this year). Offsetting this, the Constitution’s political machinery prevents rapid change except when one party has the Presidency and large majorities in both the House and Senate. That’s almost impossible to achieve when the parties have almost equal strength.
This situation will tip eventually. Until then there are two scenarios we should watch for.
(a) Political glitches
Sometimes a nation’s political machinery fails to work due to circumstances and personalities. Such as those that produced the English Civil War (1641 – 1651). Today’s delicate balance of power between the two parties probably makes this kind of failure more likely, as does the intense rhetoric deployed by both sides (largely, IMO, to disguise their similar policies).
(b) The balance of power lies in the non-participants.
The plurality of non-voters offers the potential for one party to gain a decisive edge. Swaying even a small fraction would suffice. This is potentially a far larger factor than the “swing” or “independent” voters, in fact a tiny group important only because the parties are so close in size.
Who are the non-voters? Mostly are what political scientists charitably call “low information” citizens. Many are low-income. Many are young.
Another large fraction, other than the young and poor, are disaffected citizens. They have lost confidence in the political system, or the government, or even our political regime. Some are have fringe beliefs, outside the political mainstream.
A small change in their participation could radically reshape the political landscape. This is, IMO, easier to do than achieving a large change in party allegiance, which is quite stable in the US. The party that finds a way to mobilizes even a small number of these will run America for the next political generation.
(3) About those demographics
Many non-voters are of ethnic minorities. These groups are often seen as the Democratic Party’s guarantee of future power. As in this excerpt from “The GOP’s Hispanic Nightmare“, Matthew Yglesias, Slate, 7 November 2012 — “Republicans’ minority outreach problems go way, way beyond immigration.”
Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda — even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters — with implicit racial politics.
That’s true today, but a determined effort by GOP leaders could change this. As Charles Krauthammer says in today’s Washington Post:
They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).
Making the GOP a multi-ethnic party is perhaps their greatest strategic challenge. Solving this might open the politically uninvolved to the GOP’s song.
(4) A mass movement that captures a party
I believe the current party system has decayed, just coasting on the money of our ruling elites and institutional momentum. The symptoms are visible, if we care to look. The grossly unrepresentative Senate, much like the rotten boroughs of 18th century England. The increasingly inexperienced — often weird — candidates that dominate Federal elections. The convergence of the two parties’ policies.
These result in a weak political system, vulnerable to take-over by an organized groups — especially one with a charismatic leader. A group that appeals to the plurality of non-voting citizens, mobilizing them to ends outside the imagination of today’s party leaders. History offers many examples, most fearful to behold.
The coming years might hold large surprises for America.
(5) For More Information
Posts about immigration and American politics:
- Migration from the south into America: new people, new foods, new political systems, 4 November 2008
- America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
- Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
- Two contrasting views of the Republican Party, 23 May 2010 — the GOP and immigration
This piece is cross-posted from Fabius Maximus with permission.