By Kyle Hauptman, AEI
Just a short post to note that low voter turnout is NOT, despite what some observers are implying, responsible for the GOP takeover of the Senate.
President Obama himself yesterday emphasized the “two-thirds who didn’t vote,” when discussing the new GOP-controlled Senate. Low turnout may have impacted some GOP wins for governor, but it seems a stretch to claim that lower-than-normal turnout for a midterm election cost Harry Reid his Senate majority leader job. Compared to presidential years, turnout is always lower for midterm elections, including in years like 1986 & 2006 when Democrats gained Senate seats. But were this year’s key Senate races decided by low turnout? Not so much.
Some of this narrative got started when Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com posted the map above under the headline “Preliminary Turnout Numbers Are Way Down From 2010 And 2012.” The map itself compares turnout in the midterm elections of 2010 & 2014. Notice anything about the states with key Senate races?
Let’s look at the eight states labeled Toss Ups by Real Clear Politics:
State (incumbent) Turnout change vs. 2010
- AK: Begich (D) +3.4%
- CO: Udall (D) +1.8%
- GA: Open (R) -5.7%
- IA: Open (D) +0.7%
- KS: Roberts (R) +1.1%
- LA: Landrieu (D) +5.0%
- NH: Shaheen (D) +3.1%
- NC: Hagan (D) +1.5%
That’s right, the map shows turnout increased in seven of eight Toss Up states. These seven states alone are essentially responsible for Democrats’ losing their majority, since this list includes five GOP pickups (assuming Sullivan is certified in AK) plus a good shot at a sixth after Louisiana’s runoff. It’s not even clear that Georgia had lower turnout, since the map above uses preliminary data and yet the actual results show turnout almost identical to 2010 at 2.56 million.
For good measure, the only other GOP pickup in a state not rated “Safe” by RCP occurred in Arkansas (rated “Lean GOP”). Yup, the map shows turnout up there was well, +3.7%.
As for why overall turnout was down across the country? Plenty of reasons are speculated upon, but it should be noted that California alone (11% of the country’s registered voters) is responsible for 27% of the total turnout drop, according to the data used for 538’s map. And obviously this year not only did CA have no Senate race but Gov. Jerry Brown won by 17% against a low-on-cash opponent. Compare that to 2010, when record amounts of cash were spent (especially by Meg Whitman) on barn-burner elections for both Senate and Governor.
Throw in lower-interest races in New York (no tight races either year but had both Senate & Gov races in 2010 vs. just gubernatorial race in 2014) & Texas (2010 had a hotly-contested gubernatorial race vs. two boring Sen & Gov elections this year) and you’ve got 40% of the entire US drop-off.