SARASOTA, October 12, 2016 – On Election Day, there is one key constituency that decides who wins and who loses: the nonvoters.
Sadly, the U.S. ranks 31st among 35 democracies in voter turnout. We’re behind Belgium (number one), Sweden, South Korea, Israel, Italy, Ireland, and more.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “despite a cliff-hanger presidential election, major issues at stake, and an estimated $9 billion spent in the 2012 campaigns, voter turnout dipped from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting in 2008 to an estimated 57.5 percent in 2012.”
That percentage is expected to go down again this year.
One of the founding tenets of the United States is that the government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. So why the disconnect between voters and political campaigns? It’s only logical: when voters are presented with impotent and insipid candidates time and again, they feel disenfranchised and do what’s natural – watch the results on television. Some don’t even do that.
Surveys by Nonvoters in America, a project run by Northwestern University Professor of Journalism, Ellen Shearer, segments nonvoters into several categories including, “too busy” and “tuned outs.” Her research reveals that 27 percent of nonvoters in 2012 were “pessimists,” who were disillusioned with their choices and did not vote.
According to the Nonvoters in America’s analysis, “Pessimists earned their label because, compared with other nonvoters, they are more likely to think the country is on the wrong track and are more likely to dislike both the 2012 political candidates and the government more generally.”
After four years of Obama, those voters were cynical and apathetic – and, considering their options, they cast a ballot against the whole election by staying home. Apparently, Big Shot campaign consultants didn’t have the candidates or game plan to recruit enough pessimists.
“Active faithfuls,” self-identified evangelicals, make up about 11 percent of nonvoters. They are the most mistrustful of government and have a very low opinion of politicians. Nonvoters in America found that, “politically, they lean conservative … and are very knowledgeable about how government and politics work. They are also high news consumers.” Republican strategists obviously undervalued these conservative prospects.
It’s a presidential election year and happy days are here again for political consultants – by one estimate, they have processed $11 billion so far. It doesn’t take much to rake in that kind of money.
Four years ago, 93 million eligible voters did not go to the polls. Some 38 percent (pessimists plus active faithfuls) – about 35 million Americans – were uninspired and felt their vote would be wasted. Shame on all those over-priced campaign advisers: 35 million potential voters slipped through their fingers.
The challenge for inside-the-beltway campaign operatives is identifying, targeting, and motivating right-of-center nonvoters. That would require issue-oriented candidates, smart strategies, and hard work: a 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that among all nonvoters, the biggest share would have been more likely to support President Obama.
To be clear, an overwhelming majority of pessimists and faithfuls do not consider themselves Republicans (or Democrats.) Waving a flag emblazoned with an elephant will not motivate them.
OK, so it would take sharp candidates and sophisticated battle plans to ferret out votes, but a significant portion of 35 million people could have been brought to the polls. Michigan State political scientist Corwin Smidt has observed, “We’ve seen a huge increase in technology and the ability to turn out the vote. So in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the parties and candidates see that it’s much easier to turn out people who agree with them than it is to change someone’s mind.” Are Republican campaigns raising the bridge to capture likely prospects or lowering the river looking for converts?
In 2012, Washington state Republican Rob McKenna came up 60,000 votes short in his bid for Governor; in Montana, conservative Senate candidate Denny Rehberg lost by 25,000 votes; and in North Dakota, GOP nominee Rick Berg lost his race for the U.S. Senate by a margin of just 4,000 votes.
By staying home, right-of-center nonvoters sealed the fate of McKenna, Rehberg, and Berg. Mediocre Republican consultants couldn’t find or persuade a total of 90,000 conservative nonvoters in those three states.
It’s October 2016. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable ratings have risen to levels almost identical to those of Donald Trump. Fifty-six percent of the American public has a negative opinion of her compared to 63 percent for him.
At least thirty-five million conservative-leaning nonvoters will soon be deciding which candidate they can tolerate slightly better than the other – or whether they should stay home. No matter who occupies the White House however, there is an urgent need to save the endangered Republican majority in the Senate.
Message to campaign consiglieri: more voters are needed. Get to work.