Suppression vs. Turnout, the 2012 War

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Photo: Christopher Anderson/Christopher Anderson/ Magnum for New York Magazine

When Pennsylvania Republican and State House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted that the state’s restrictive new voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” he committed a classic Kinsley Gaffe, in which a politician inadvertently blurts out what he really believes instead of what he is supposed to say. Turzai’s gaffe was actually a Bond Villain Gaffe, which is a subset of the Kinsley Gaffe, in which rampant egomania drives you to unadvisedly confess your evil scheme.

The Pennsylvania law, which would knock some three quarters of a million disproportionately Democratic voters off the rolls, is best understood in the context of an electorate that is rapidly growing more Democratic. Ruy Teixeira and John Judis argued a decade ago that the electorate was transforming, so that the groups most loyal to the GOP were shrinking while those most loyal to the Democrats were increasing. I argued in a print story this year that panic over this demographic change was underlying much of the GOP’s behavior in recent years. Conservatives like Sean Trende insisted that the demographic trends that have occurred in recent elections, during which the minority share of the electorate has steadily grown, may not continue.

Teixeira, along with William Frey, has a new and fascinating column showing for the first time that the trends underlying the Emerging Democratic Majority have indeed continued:

Minorities, 80 percent of whom supported Obama in 2008, have increased their share of eligible voters across the time period by around 3 percentage points. (About three-fifths of this is from Hispanics, most of the rest from Asians and those of “other race.”) White working class voters, whom Obama lost by 18 points, have decreased their share of eligible voters by about the same amount. And white college-educated voters, whom Obama lost by only 4 points, were roughly stable (a very slight two-tenths of a percentage point uptick in their share of eligibles.)

Now, the key term here is “eligible.” If you’re not eligible, you can’t vote. Now, the main thrust of the restrictive voting laws in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is not to make it impossible for marginal voters to cast legal ballots, but simply to make it inconvenient. Life is filled with hassles. It’s enough of a hassle to find the best phone service. There’s only so much hassle people will go through in order to undertake a symbolic act (voting) that offers no tangible benefits. The overwhelming thrust of the myriad changes to voting introduced by Republicans since 2010 is to make voting a bigger hassle and discourage marginal, transient, and first-time voters — that is, the component parts of the emerging Democratic coalition.

Nate Cohn notes that Obama is mainly holding on to the new elements he added to the Democratic coalition in 2008, and that his slippage since then has mainly occurred among white voters (especially those without a college degree). Hence new polls showing him doing well in new-coalition states like Virginia and North Carolina, even as he struggles in the Midwest. Obama has devoted much of his early energies to energizing his new coalition — young voters with student loans, immigrant communities with immigration reform, and social liberals with gay marriage. In a largely decided electorate, one of the main dynamics of the campaign is simply whether Obama can get his coalition registered and motivated to vote. And both parties know it.