FEBRUARY 10, 2010
TURNOUT IS THE KEY FOR DEMOCRATS IN 2010
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
As Democrats continue to absorb the shock of Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts, they do have at least one silver lining to enjoy: advance notice. The question is whether they will take advantage of it and stop a 2010 tidal wave from sweeping them out of power.
In the last two game-changing elections -- 1994, when the Democrats lost both houses of Congress, and 2006, when the Republicans lost control -- the results were a surprise. It was only in the last few months before the elections that the parties realized the serious trouble they were in.
This year, the Democrats have real advance knowledge, thanks to results of the January Massachusetts special election (as well as the November defeats in the Virginia and New Jersey governors' races).
The party has started to take some basic action where possible, such as replacing vulnerable incumbent Chris Dodd with a seeming sure-fire winner. And there is some hope that the economy could rebound enough that it won't be a drag on the party in power. But it's unlikely that a full-blown economic recovery will be in place by November, and getting rid of some deadwood to bring in outsiders won't be enough to avoid significant losses.
The reality for Democrats is that turnout in 2010 will be the key.
Historically, voter turnout falls off greatly in mid-term elections. In the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout among the voting age population was 56.8 percent. In 2006, it was just 37.1 percent.
Focusing on new voters who flocked to the polls in 2008 won't work. Many of these new voters were presumably excited one way or the other about Barack Obama, and Democrats should face the fact that many simply will not show up to the polls this year.
Instead, Democrats will need to focus on motivating their base, which they completely failed to do in Massachusetts. We're already starting to see this, with President Obama talking up a number of Democratic "red meat" issues such as trade and financial populism.
But appealing to the base is a tough line to walk. By doing so, the party risks turning off the swing voters. Most of the vulnerable incumbents are running in marginal seats, and they will need to get as many of the swing voters over to their sides as possible. Still, the party will have to find a way to do it if it wants to avoid a bloodbath.
One advantage Democrats have is the fact that the Republicans are not necessarily the beneficiaries of the public anger. After all, in the New York congressional race in November, the Tea Party movement actually cost the Republicans a long-held seat in Congress by backing the Conservative Party candidate. The Tea Party members are backing a number of the more conservative candidates in the primaries, ones who may not be able to win enough swing voters to triumph in November. The Republicans will try to ride the Tea Party movement to power, but in the past we've seen that popular revolt movements are at risk of splintering in a number of different directions.
The Democrats face a real challenge to their power in 2010. The Brown victory in the party stronghold of Massachusetts shows just how vulnerable they are to a voter outrage. The party's perceived inability to wield power effectively leaves them open to heavy criticism and a potential bitter defeat at the polls.
But November is still a long way away.
Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.