November 4, 2008
Curtis Gans, the guru of studying voter turnout, reports that voter registration is up 2.5%, and he projects a near record turnout today (possibly topped only by 1960's general election). What is behind this participation surge?
Although turnout was also up in 2004, my sense is that Democrats, at least, are in a different psychological space this time. In 2004, Republicans (perhaps even you, Dan) thought that Democrats were more motivated by their hatred of President Bush than their love of John Kerry. Though an exaggeration, there was some truth to that observation: No Republican figure since Richard Nixon infuriated Democrats quite as much as W., and for some of the same reasons.
But this time, the equation is different. Polls consistently show high enthusiasm levels for Barack Obama among his supporters and far less polarized views of John McCain than the current president. The positive energy among Democrats may induce nausea and cynical disbelief among Republican commentators, but it seems to be real.
Where does it come from? Some of it is generational idealism and not attached to any particular issue. When the Obama phenomenon hit college campuses, it did not seem to be tied specifically to the Iraq war, economic justice or even environmental protection. From my conversations with students and recent graduates, I concluded that the excitement was about a new generation taking over and turning the page on old politics, just as their baby boomer parents had done in the 1960s and early '70s. It was also an affirmation of a fusion culture by kids raised in greater cultural diversity and familiar with the global economy. When Iowa proved Obama could win white votes, African Americans also saw a historic opportunity and joined in enthusiastically.
Issues and pent-up frustrations with previous losses in presidential elections play a larger role for many older Democratic voters. Initially, they were driven by their opposition to a misrepresented, badly managed and expensive Iraq war. But by 2006, the Democratic base was also riled by the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, its proposal to privatize Social Security, Bush's failure to promptly recognize global warming, growing inequality and insecurity and conservative opposition to stem cell research, to mention just a few of the many complaints. The economic crisis did not push the Democratic base into the Obama column; it was already there before the campaign started.
On the other side of the partisan divide, the enthusiasm level is measurably lower. What do they have on their minds today? Well-to-do Republicans, such as my extremely wealthy former college roommate, are protecting their economic interests. He will put up with Annie Oakley, he tells me, because it would cost him too much not to. Social conservatives seem to match the youthful Obama supporters in their devotion to Sarah Palin and may actually believe that Obama is an angry, black, godless socialist who pals around with terrorists. Faith, after all, requires no evidence.
But it is another group of Republicans that most interests me: educated fiscal conservatives and moderates who seem to be taken aback by the populist rebellion in their own party. These people support science, education, budgetary prudence, racial tolerance and diversity. What are they thinking now that the candidate who had once so bravely stood up to religious extremists and corruption has been transformed beyond recognition by the urgency of placating the pitchfork crowd? Their minds may not so much be on the vote they are casting today as on the future of their party tomorrow.
Bruce E. Cain is a political science professor at UC Berkeley and executive director of the University of California Washington Center.
Call it the Politics of Hunger. In other words, when you (or your ideological leaders) haven't been invited to dinner at the White House for eight long years, you tend to get motivated. So just as two Clinton-Gore terms energized Republican voters in the 2000 election, and 12 years of Reagan-Bush mobilized Democrats in 1992, there's no question that the majority of grass-roots enthusiasm in this campaign has been on behalf of Obama.
The flip side of hunger, of course, is the Politics of Fat and Happy. In 1992, Republican turnout dipped precipitously, and a significant number of GOP voters opted instead for the independent candidacy of Ross Perot. Only eight years after turning out in droves for pro-welfare-reform, pro-trade, balanced-budget advocate Bill Clinton, many Democratic voters decided that his designated successor was insufficiently liberal and provided a critical number of votes to Ralph Nader.
Republicans are currently neither fat nor happy. But many conservatives feel betrayed by an administration and Congress that they believe veered from basic GOP principles on any number of economic, foreign policy and social matters. Their lack of enthusiasm was intensified by the nomination of a candidate with whom the party base has always had a tenuous relationship. So McCain was forced rightward in his selection of a running mate to motivate conservative stalwarts, costing him an opportunity to reach out to the political center.
The lack of Republican enthusiasm was especially noticeable during what you and I agreed on Monday, Bruce, was the most critical week of the campaign, when official Washington hurried to respond to the early fall meltdown on Wall Street. McCain's decision to suspend his campaign to join the negotiations was a huge gamble, one that in retrospect did not pay off. But while Democrats uniformly denounced McCain's decision as a stunt and a gimmick, the only people who spoke out in favor of the gambit were McCain and his campaign aides. Congressional Republicans were noticeably silent as to the merits of their nominee's participation for several days. By the time House GOP leader John Boehner stated that McCain's presence had been helpful, conventional wisdom had long since hardened into concrete.
But there's no question that Obama has inspired voters in a rare and significant way in this campaign, and only some of the reasons for that are related to the demographics of age, race and heritage. McCain's advisors were making the case through the weekend that they expected dramatically high turnout among their supporters as well, but it's clear that the Obama campaign's voter registration and mobilization efforts have changed the shape of the electorate in a historic manner.
The extraordinary economic and national security challenges facing the next president are unique and have obviously played an important role in the level of voter interest and participation in this election. The test for the next president is to maintain that enthusiasm when the promises of the campaign trail harden into the difficult realities of governing.
Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
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