Our View: Turnout

Posted: November 9, 2012

It never figured to be an election dominated by “strategery” and mechanics — at least not entirely. The pre-election assumptions suggested otherwise.

Consider: How many times did you hear the statement, “This is the most important election in our lifetime.” Many times, we suspect — and primarily from the mouths (or keypads) of conservatives and Republicans.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at Larry Sabato’s Center for Politics at U.Va., spoke to this alleged “enthusiasm gap.”

“Everyone was talking about how the Democrats are unenthusiastic and the Republicans are all fired up,” Mr. Kondik said. “It sounds like that was all talk.”

It certainly does. An early-morning visit to Winchester’s Virginia Avenue polling station, which voted almost 2-to-1 for President Obama, would have dispelled any doubts about Democratic enthusiasm, or lack thereof. While it is true the president, as of early Wednesday, had claimed roughly 9 million fewer votes nationwide than he did in 2008, it also must be said his chief strategist and mechanic, David Axelrod, made certain the votes he did receive were spread in all the right swing-state places.

So this was a nuts-and-bolts, get-out-the-vote election, after all. It’s just that fewer folks actually voted this year than four years ago — and even, as final tabulations might show, than in 2004. And therein lies the assumption-smashing surprise.

“By and large, people didn’t show up,” says Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. “Beyond people with passion, we have a disengaged electorate.”

Which brings us back to that original contention — that conservatives and Republicans were primed and ready to turn Mr. Obama out of office. That never materialized, but not for reasons currently posited — i.e., that the party failed to reach out sufficiently to, say, Hispanics and young unmarried women. No, as RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende accurately observed, far too many prospective GOP voters neglected to even “show up.” And so much so that Mitt Romney fell 2.5 million votes shy of John McCain’s total in 2008.

And who were these no-shows? White voters, as many as 7 million fewer than in 2008, so notes Mr. Trende. So much for that anticipated “enthusiasm.”

The beguiling question, of course: Why did these folks stay home? Answer that query, Mr. Trende says, and you’ll solve a “bigger puzzle” — charting the future course of American politics.