Enthusiasm, voting and income

By Jamelle Bouie


Jonathan Chait attempts to answer the question of “why Democrats are chronically unenthusiastic”:

The Democratic base tends to lose interest in the threat of right-wing politics when their party holds power. Republicans, I’m guessing offhand, have had more success energizing their base during Republican rule. (Anybody want to quantify this?) Specifically I’m thinking of the 2002 and 2004 elections, which featured revved-up Republican bases despite total GOP control of government.

My seat of the pants analysis is that this reflects a psychological difference between the left and the right. The liberal coalition is more ideologically diffuse and attracted to individualism. Sometimes you see left-wing splintering at the end of periods of Democratic control — 1948, 1968, 2000 — but more often it’s simply harder to make liberals understand the urgency of preserving their party’s control of power against a hypothetical threat.

Two things: first, it’s the case that voter turnout in midterm elections is normally lower than it is in presidential elections, and second, while Chait gets at something in his analysis, I think he would be well-served by considering the role income plays in affecting voting rates.

If you were to make a quick list of core Democratic constituencies, it would look something like this: urban professionals, young people, labor, women (particularly single women), African-Americans, and Latinos. What’s more, if there is anything most of those groups share, it’s that they are disproportionately lower-income. And according to a 2008 population survey by the Census Bureau, registration and voting rates correspond directly with income. Voters in the $0 to $49,999 group are somewhat less likely to vote than voters in the $50,000 to $74,999 group and significantly less likely to vote than the $75,000 to $150,000-plus group.

With that in mind, the turnout question has a pretty straightforward answer; not only is turnout normally lower in mid-term elections, but all things being equal, lower-income voters are less likely to turnout in any given election than higher-income voters. And since those lower-income voters are also mostly Democratic, their low-turnout will disproportionately affect the Democratic Party. By contrast, high-income/high-turnout voters are mostly Republican, and since this is also good Republican year, it’s the case that the people most likely to vote are also the people most likely to be energized about the election.