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So was this a one-time thing or not?

So was the Republican showing in this year’s election an aberration or not? I’m going to limit this discussion to Harris County here. It’s clear by now that what we saw here was an unprecedented spike in Republican turnout. A significant number of people who normally don’t vote in off year elections did so this year, and most of them voted Republican. Will that happen again? I can think of two reasons why it might, and one reason why it probably won’t.

Why it might: First, not to put too fine a point on it, but winning elections is fun. It feels good, and it makes you feel like you were rewarded for your efforts. All these Republican voters who had previously only come out in years divisible by four may be saying to themselves “Hey, we made a difference. We should do this again.” You can be certain every Republican they helped elect will be reinforcing that message for the next four years and beyond.

And two, voting is a habit. The people we expect to vote in a given election are overwhelmingly those who voted in the last one like it. The set of people who have voted in an off year election, in Harris County and in Texas, is now bigger than it used to be. Until proven otherwise, all 797,000 people who participated in this year’s election have to be considered likely voters for the 2014 election.

Against that, the set of conditions that led to this year’s Republican surge are highly unlikely to be replicated any time soon. For all we know, in 2014 we could have a Republican President and a Republican Congress about to suffer their own midterm backlash. Four years is a long time, and betting on things that had never happened before to happen again sure seems against the odds.

To me, it’s pointless to worry about what Republican voters may or may not do in some future election. We Democrats don’t have a lot of control over that. One could argue that it was our string of legislative and policy successes that was a big driving factor in their increased motivation this year. I’ll take that trade any day. What we do have control over is our own level of turnout. If there’s one thing I hope we learn from this experience, it’s that if they can do it, so can we. We quite rightly expect the voters who helped propel Democrats to victory in Harris County in 2008 to come back out in 2012. We need to work on convincing them that they need to turn out in other years, too. I believe some of them did do so this year – I know that the bulk of Democratic GOTV efforts were aimed at “Obama surge” voters, and given that Democratic turnout hit unprecedented heights this year, if not nearly as high as the GOP, I’d have to say that effort saw at least some success. My hope is that it continues on through 2012 and 2014 and beyond. If nothing else, it’s the one thing we absolutely can control.

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7 Comments

  1. Brad M. says:

    Seems to me the Dems only have one more opportunity “to control” their destiny with Obama being in just one more election and have a chance to ride his coattails. If the Dems even want to ride that coat tail next time. They avoided him like the plague this time around.

    Next election cycle in Harris County it might come down to who is the Rep candidate for President. I don’t think a lot of conservative voters where all that excited about McCain in 08 and sat it out.

  2. Bubba at Shell says:

    I find it troubling to think that so much of the local turn-out is driven solely by national “items” (e.g., whose running for President, views on Congress’ performance). Sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s really much that can be done to get folks to turn out.

  3. JJMB says:

    I think you are missing that who wins isn’t only a questions of whether Republicans turn out or Democrats turn out. I think there is a significatn group of people who go one way one year, the other way another year. I talk to those people all the time. Some of them liked Obama, seemed smart, energetic, better than the plodding Bush, and thus turned out in 08. Some of them (some of the same people) are in the energy industry and thought the Gulf moritorium was a huge over-reaction (see news reports on how the Administration tried to make it look like scientists recommended a moritorium when it was a purely political decision) and wanted to vote Republican this time. Some still like Obama but find Nancy Pelosi not to their liking and are disappointed that he let her take such a huge role. Lots are in the medical field and, despite voting for Obama, think the health care plan will be a big fiasco.

    You more partisan people — I believe — tend to only talk to other partisans. I have a sister-in-law in Seattle who thinks Republicans must literally steal elections in her state because she doesn’t know anyone who isn’t a Democrat, never meets them, never talks to them.

    How do you think Prop 1 passed if it was just some hard-core Republican turnout increase that cause all the Democrat candidates to lose?

  4. JJMB – There’s a lot of data out that that shows there are very few true independents. Most people who call themselves such lean, often strongly, one way or the other. I agree that some number of people who have voted Democratic before, in 2008 and maybe 2006, voted Republican this time. But given that Democrats in Harris County got more votes this year than they had ever gotten before, I don’t think that’s the best explanation for what we saw here.

    Over 140,000 more people voted in this election than in the 2002 election. Nearly 200,000 more people voted in this election than in the 2006 election. Maybe some of them were the swing voters you describe, but I think the more straightforward explanation is that they were Presidential year voters who were motivated to vote in an election they normally don’t vote in.

    As for Prop 1, you do know that it had a lot of Republican support, right? Among other things, it was endorsed by the Texas Conservative Review. If anything, the surge in Republican voting helped Prop 1.

  5. dave says:

    “One could argue that it was our string of legislative and policy successes that was a big driving factor in their increased motivation this year. I’ll take that trade any day.”

    So when the Texas Rs pass a bunch of contentious legislation and then lose (say) 15 House seats in the next election, will you focus on their policy successes, or spin it as their ill-conceived issues leading to losses in the lege? Because I too would take that trade. (Why only 15? Redistricting, plus Obama loses his advantage of having his formerly vague idea of “change” mean whatever voters want it to mean.)

    Btw, that TCR endorsement of Prop 1 is pretty embarrassing. Lots of naively hopeful stuff along the lines of “well, this has the potential to be good, if” and “here’s things we’d like to see enacted concurrently.” Gary, either you got suckered or you own a silent share in Costello’s buddies’ companies.

  6. Dave – No, I’m sure I’ll view it the same way that Republicans viewed the Democratic achievements of the past two years, though with less hysteria and fewer references to death panels. This is why we have elections. And I’m sure Republicans will feel pretty good about whatever it is they manage to do, knowing how hard it is for those who come after them to undo it. As someone said, the point of having the majority is to do something with it. I see that you get that, and if I were you that’s how I’d feel.

  7. [...] A rising tide lifts all boats, some more than others. If you assume that 2010 was a unique confluence of events, then 2014 will almost certainly be a more promising year, both countywide and in CC2. A good [...]

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