Some time after Labor Day (ironically) President Obama plans to deliver a major speech on jobs. Nobody knows what he’ll say — not even the president himself, Washington pundits say — but that hasn’t stopped critics from attacking him. The left is accusing him of planning halfway measures. The right attacks him for pandering to the left. If only.
The president’s problem is that we know him well enough by now to guess what’s next. Democrats know he’ll instinctively take them for granted and tack toward the middle, desperate to find a polite compromise with the Republicans or at least show independent voters that he tried. Republicans know the same thing. They also know that the more they taunt him, the further rightward they can lure him until his compromise is no compromise and his base is utterly demoralized. By the time they’re done with him, he’ll be so battered that nobody will want to vote for him — not the left and not the center.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans won the 2010 midterm elections because Obama lost the independent voters, thanks to the economy and the unpopular health-care reform. There’s a bit of truth to that, but not much. Actually, the Democrats’ biggest problem in 2010 was that their voters stayed home, while Republicans turned out in droves. Yes, some independents changed sides, but not nearly enough to sweep Congress.
In simple numbers, Obama won in 2008 by 54% of the vote to John McCain’s 46%. In the 2010 congressional elections the voters reversed themselves: 54% went Republican, 46% Democratic. Put that way, it sounds as though 8% of voters changed their preference, handing the Republicans a mandate for change. If that’s so, then the president is right to keep reaching for that midfield where the shift occurred.
But the real difference between the two elections is more complicated. The 2008 election brought out about 63% of eligible voters, the highest proportion since 1960. That translates into 131 million ballots cast. Two years later, only 40% of eligible voters turned out, or about 89 million (out of a slightly larger population base). In absolute terms, the number of votes cast in 2010 was about 68% of the 2008 total. At least 42 million people who voted in 2008 stayed home in 2010.
So far, nothing unusual; turnout always drops between presidential years. It must be noted, too, that a vote is a vote. Republicans won in 2010 and Democrats lost, fair and square. On the other hand, if we want to understand what the elections showed about the American people’s will, it helps to find out which Americans voted.
Here’s where the numbers matter. In 2008, some 70 million people voted for Obama and 60 million for John McCain. Obama won by about 10 million votes. In 2010, about 41 million people voted Democratic and 48 million Republican. The Republicans won by about 7 million votes.
Note: The Republicans didn’t get more votes in 2010 than in 2008. They got 12 million fewer. But they won, because while their 2010 midterm showing was just 80% of their 2008 presidential total, the Democrats’ midterm showing was a dismal 58% of their earlier haul, a drop of 29 million votes.
The Republicans won in 2010 because the Democrats lost more votes than they did. The question is: Where did the Democrats’ votes go?
The usual answer is that independent voters switched from Democratic to Republican, giving the GOP the edge. In fact, there was a shift, but not enough to turn the election. Self-described independents made up about 38% of the electorate in 2010, slightly up from 35% in 2008 (the rise was at Democrats’ expense). Independents favored Obama in 2008 by 54% to 46%; two years later they reversed and went 58%-42% Republican. If you do all the math, you’ll end up with about 4.5 million possible independent votes that switched columns from blue to red. Sobering, but not a game-changer.
Put differently, if Obama won back all the independents next year that he lost in 2010, he still wouldn’t win. He needs to win back the Democrats who stayed home while Republicans were out voting.
Who were they? That’s no big mystery. Black voters constituted about 13% of the 2008 electorate but dropped to 10% of the reduced voter pool in 2010. That doesn’t sound like much, but it means some 8 million votes not cast, nearly all of them Democratic.
Next, young voters, between ages 18 and 29. In 2008 about 51% of them voted, accounting for some 18% of the electorate. Two years later only 24% showed up, making up a scant 12% of voters. Even after allowing for a drop in the Democrats’ advantage in this group (from 66% to 55%), you still find that under-30 abstentions cost the Democrats more than 9 million votes. Other Democratic-leaning groups registered smaller drops, but the combined effect was devastating.
The reason so many Republicans turned out, it’s often noted, is that they were angry at Obama. Less obvious, many Democrats were angry, too — at Obama. And those who weren’t angry had lost interest. He’d gotten them to the polls in 2008, many for the first time, because they didn’t like the way the Republicans governed and he promised change. And yet, two years later American troops were still in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo was still operating and environmental legislation was dead on arrival. All he could show was a complicated health-care plan, compromised to death, and a mysterious “stimulus” that supposedly made unemployment a little less awful.
A big part of his problem, of course, is the Senate Republicans’ abuse of the filibuster. Much of it, though, is his own penchant for leading from the rear and avoiding confrontation.
Whatever the issue, he lets Congress talk it to death, finally stepping in only after everyone is sick of hearing about it. He ends up settling for whatever crumbs and half-measures he can wheedle out of the Republicans. Worst of all, he blames Congress and Washington, as though both parties were equally guilty. If that’s all the Democrats are — quarrelsome and ineffectual — why would anyone bother voting for them?
The big September jobs speech may be his last chance to act like a Democrat. It’ll be interesting to see whether he’s up to it.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).