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The Midterm Turnout Problem November 20, 2014

It is well known that important constituencies, especially those for the Democratic Party, have not been turning out in ‘midterm’ elections in the last few years.  In fact, a New York Times writer has endorsed eliminating ‘midterms’ for that very reason.

But these ‘midterm’ elections are not midterm for any office but the Presidency.  They are certainly not ‘midterm’ for the Governor of California, or for the numerous Senators, Representatives, state legislators, and local officials.  Do the groups who stay home have some kind of view that the President of the United States is the ‘big man’ or national savior, the only one that counts?  If so, Obama failed to teach several of his constituencies – the young, people of color – that this is not so, and has suffered for it in both 2010 and 2014.

On the other hand, another feature of American ‘midterms’ is that the party holding the Presidency usually loses ground at all other levels. [Exceptions are 1934, 1998, and 2002.]  In 1982, 1986, and 2006, it was the Republicans who lost ground.  Who stayed home that time?  In Reagan’s era, the younger people, between 18 and 30 in those years, were more Republican than the generations before and after; but presumably the ‘minorities’ were not.  And between the years 1982 and 1986, when the Republicans lost ground under Reagan, he carried 49 states!  At that time, theories were advanced that people wanted the ‘daddy party’, the Republicans, in charge of the executive, and the ‘mommy party’, the Democrats, in charge of the legislative branch.  But in 2006 the younger generation was Democratic again, and the Democrats made important gains. Who stayed home then?  Is the vice of thinking that the President of the United States is the ‘big man’ perhaps not one confined to Democrats?

Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, also has ‘midterms.’  In 2000 they transitioned from a one party mild autocracy to a three party system, with the first nonviolent transfer of executive power in their history – right at the time when we were tied up in the courts with Bush vs Gore.  I’ll bet they laughed!  But the Mexican President has historically, much more than the American one, really been the ‘big man’ historically in dispersing power and privilege.  I wonder whether turnout in Mexico is lower during their midterms, which fall in 2003, 2009, and 2015.  I wonder who stays home in that country.

To some extent, as I have said before, media coverage is centralizing.  The TV cameras cover first the President, then the Senate and the Governors, and only after that U S Representatives, state legislators, and local officials.  The smaller one’s entity of government, the harder one has to work to discover the qualifications of the candidates, to say nothing of the policies they might wish to enact.  Even at the homeowners’ association level, we have these associations mainly because we don’t know and trust our neighbors; they are certainly not the hot seat of publicity!  This is why I tend to think the equation ‘more local = closer to the people’ has now become ‘more local = closer to either local crony capitalists or to aggrieved NIMBY groups.’  Fortunately for us, the two fight each other.

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