Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, July 06, 2004  

The Other 50%

It’s July, but according to the polls, most Americans have already made up their minds about the presidential election. The "undecideds" run about 5%, depending on the poll--or just 5.5 million Americans. For an election so young, it looks like the campaigns will have to fight for a tiny number of votes among an evenly-divided electorate.

Or will they?

I've been looking at some numbers, and there's a pretty startling pattern. When the country is conservative, voters stay home. When it's liberal or populist, they come out. The great liberal era of American politics extended from 1932 to 1968. Voter turnout increased in that period, from the low fifties to over 60% between 1952-1968. Over the next twelve years, as the federal government began swinging rightward, voter turnouts dropped. With the exception of 1992, they've stayed low ever since.

(The 1992 election, when 55.2% turned out, is an interesting exception. That was the year, recall, of Ross Perot--the most populist in recent memory. Following Perot, Clinton ran a positive, populist campaign and together they swamped the incumbent with 62% of the vote. In 1994, Newt and the Contract with America sent the federal government--and Clinton--sharply right and it was back to the low fifties.)

But 2004, so often compared to 1994, is a different beast altogether. That election, although it produced a sea change in political power, had the usual midterm turnout--below 40%. It was an election of social issues, not economics. This year, by contrast, is the first election since 1992 that the working class are being courted by both candidates. Everyone emphasizes how deeply polarized Americans are--but what they don't show is how engaged they are. That 5% of undecideds the campaigns are fighting for isn't really the margin available. By even conservative estimates, this election could have another 8 million new voters (if 55% of the voting age population votes). If the trends of the past hold true, these voters won't be evenly divided--they'll be liberal.

Kerry's margin could therefore be a few million.

posted by Jeff | 7:44 AM |
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