Thursday, 6 November 2014


Nick Hayward

Behind the Obama and Democrat obituaries and the gleeful Republican taunts about a comprehensive repudiation of Obama’s policies, lie some less well-publicised, but nonetheless significant, aspects of Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Fox News broadcasts President Obama addressing the
nation on Nov 5th, 2014, after the sweeping Republican
victories in the midterm elections
Turnout in midterms rarely ever attains the levels of voting in presidential contests but the early figures for this week’s poll suggests that the numbers have slumped further, possibly to a point where barely one-third of the electorate turned out to vote. It is generally accepted that amongst those most difficult to galvanise into voting are poorer sections of American society, the young, ethnic minorities and women – the very groups amongst which Obama’s Democrats have scored some notable successes in garnering support. So, turnout was always going to be a worry for the Democrats. And yet these elections were fought with additional obstacles to voting in place, the effects of which were felt most by these very groups. Tuesday’s elections were contested under a raft of new electoral rules introduced by many states following the Supreme Court’s landmark Shelby County v Holder 2013 judgement suspending those elements of the Voting Rights Act, which had sought to protect vulnerable groups from discrimination in electoral practices designed to prevent them from registering to vote or from actually voting. Early voting was curbed by some states and tougher voter ID requirements were also introduced. The conclusions of one group of academics looking at these new electoral laws are not uncommon amongst informed commentaries on the subject:

Specifically, the Republican Party has proved incapable of expanding its appeal among the much faster growing minority electorate—which just so happens to exhibit notably lower turnout rates vis-à-vis the stagnant non-Hispanic white electorate that is more supportive of Republican candidates. Faced with this reality, the GOP appears to have opted for coalition maintenance instead of coalition expansion (Karol 2009), by embracing several restrictive voting reforms whose true purpose is to marginally curtail the participation of voters typically aligned with the Democratic Party.*

If you own a gun, a car, a passport or have been in the military, it isn’t so difficult to vote in Texas, but if you have no acceptable photo ID, can’t find you birth certificate and only have the likes of utility bills with your name and address, then the obstacles are considerable.

Of course, much more was happening in these elections. Sure, amongst Democrats there was considerable disappointment with the Obama Presidency and its failure to live up to expectations and this will have depressed the turnout somewhat.  And yet, at the same time as Democrats in fierce battles with Republican opponents seemed to adopt a strategy of tacking rightwards and shunned the notion of trumpeting the Obama achievements on healthcare and the economy, voters were swinging behind a raft of progressive measures covering the minimum wage, personal & medical marijuana use, prison sentencing, abortion and gun control in both blue and red states. So the socially liberal American voter is there and voting: did Democrat candidates lack the nerve to go out and rally them? Or, was it a more wily game where, knowing who was most likely to turn out, the Democrats decided to pitch for some of the traditional Republican vote? Either way, it didn’t work.

This post also appeared on the Northumbria University Politics blog.  Nick Hayward is Principal Lecturer in Politics at Northumbria and teaches on the American Studies programme. He was Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics at the State University of New York, Fredonia, 2002-3. He is currently researching British and American post-war views of Empire.

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