News Release

Big Money and Voter Turnout in the 2014 Elections: It’s Worse Than You Think

Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson have just written “Americans Are Sick to Death of Both Parties: Why Our Politics Is in Worse Shape Than We Thought,” on AlterNet.

WALTER DEAN BURNHAM
Burnham is professor emeritus, Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Chair in State Government at the University of Texas, Austin and the author of many books and articles on American voting behavior.

He commented: “Our cautious guess is that turnout in this year’s Congressional races will finally weigh in at around 36 percent of the potential electorate that had legal rights to cast a ballot. That’s a shocking statistic. Across the whole sweep of American history, the momentous dimensions of what has just happened stand out in bold relief. The drop off in voting turnout from the presidential election of 2012 to 2014 is the second largest of all time — 24 percentage points. And the turnout decline this year is broad and to levels that boggle the mind — rates of voting that recall the earliest days of the 19th century, before the Jacksonian Revolution swept away property suffrage and other devices that held down turnout. Turnout in Ohio, for example, fell to 34 percent — a level the state last touched in 1814, when political parties on a modern model did not exist and it had just recently entered the Union. ”

THOMAS FERGUSON, thomas.ferguson at umb.edu
Ferguson is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

He observed: “New York trumped Ohio: turnout in the Empire State plunged to 30 percent, almost back to where it was in 1798, when property suffrage laws disenfranchised some 40 percent of the citizenry. New Jersey managed a little better: turnout fell to 31 percent, back to levels of the 1820s. Delaware turnout fell to 35 percent, well below some elections of the 1790s. In the west, by contrast, turnout declined to levels almost without precedent: California’s 33 percent turnout appears to be the lowest recorded since the state entered the union in 1850. Nevada also hit a record low (28 percent), as did Utah at 26 percent (for elections to the House).

“Turnout rose compared to that of 2010 in at least eight states… These were nearly all sites of high stakes, heavily contested elections either for the Senate, as in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas, or for the governor’s office — precisely the sort of places that big donors for sure concentrated their resources on. The tidal wave of money, we judge, supercharged campaigns in those states, if not electorates. (The turnout increases were quite modest, save in Louisiana.)

“Exit polls from the 2014 House races suggest that the old New Deal political formula has become like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. Traces of the ancient pattern are still there in the aggregate: In the lowest income bracket (under $30,000 in the 2014 exit polls) voters overwhelmingly prefer the Democrats by 59 percent to 39 percent. As income rises, that percentage falls off steeply, with the slightest of hiccups in the very highest bracket. But after six years of profound policy disappointment, not enough lower income voters bothered to go to the polls.

“Since 2006, when the Democratic landslide lamed George W. Bush’s administration, American politics has become a game of musical chairs. Both direct poll evidence and common sense confirm that huge numbers of Americans are now wary of both major political parties and increasingly upset about prospects in the long term. Many are convinced that a few big interests control policy. They crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing on the scale required will be offered to them by either of America’s money-driven major parties. This is likely only to accelerate the disintegration of the political system evident in the 2014 congressional elections and in the long run it is as threatening to Republicans as it is to Democrats.”