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The Ghosts of Midterms Past

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 30/03/2016 Capri S. Cafaro

Presidential elections get all of the attention. 24-hour media coverage. Journalists crisscrossing the nation imbed in campaign busses traversing obscure American towns. Big donors line up to throw big money at their candidate of choice. Our airwaves are carpet bombed with ads, both negative and positive, coming from all sides. Staff and volunteers invade swing states to implement that ever-so-important ground game to identify and get out voters. All eyes of the world are on the race for the White House. So, it's no wonder that voter participation is much higher in presidential election years than in off-year midterm elections. After all, we are choosing a Commander-In-Chief, the leader of the Free World, right?
Undoubtedly, much is at stake every four years as Presidents set the tone and, theoretically, the policy agenda, in Washington. Voters figure they have done their civic duty by casting a ballot for president and will be back to the polls in another four years. But what is occurring in the intervening time? We still have elections. Municipal elections, state government elections, gubernatorial elections, and even U.S. Senate and U.S. House races, none of which get the kind of time or attention from either voters or the media that is given in a presidential election year.

Americans show up in presidential elections, but not in midterms. Here's a startling statistic: In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected to his first term in the White House, 61.6% of all eligible voters went to the polls. Contrast that with 2014, a midterm election year, just 36.4% of all eligible voters showed up at the ballot box.
So, what causes this almost 50% drop off in voter participation between presidential and midterm elections? Is it frustration with "politics as usual" or disgust with gridlock? Is it the lack of national attention paid to off-year elections? Is it a feeling that "my vote doesn't count'? It is likely all of these things factor into low midterm turnout, but what contributes to the gap between Democratic and Republican performance within a midterm election? Dems have a long history of not showing up for midterm elections. One big answer is demographics.
Democrats do better with younger and minority voters. Neither shows up in force in midterm elections. According to the Cook Political Report, since 1994, voter turnout for those under the age of 45 in each midterm has fallen an average of 9.6 percent compared to the presidential election cycle before it. Conversely, an older, whiter electorate tends to participate in midterms in much larger numbers. Translation: Republicans have a built-in demographic advantage over Democrats in midterm cycles.
Millennial and minorities are growing sectors of the American population, a trend that should help Democratic candidates cross the finish line to victory. However, they have to show up to vote first. Ironically, these groups have the most at stake in a midterm election. Governors' mansions and state houses are up for grabs in midterms. Voting rights and reproductive rights are increasingly decided at the state level. What's more, it's the states that draw the Congressional lines every ten years. One party rule in state capitals across the country has lead to significantly skewed Congressional districts, creating an environment ripe for extreme challenges in primaries and ultimately gridlock in Washington.
In 2014, a midterm year, the Democrats lost nine seats in the United States Senate, collateral damage due to low turnout by traditional Democratic voters. The U.S. Senate is particularly important because it provides "advise and consent" for presidential appointees, including Supreme Court justice nominees. If you care about immigration, health care access, same sex marriage, access to firearms, abortion rights or environmental regulation, you have to care about the composition of the Supreme Court. Landmark decisions on all of these hot button topics have either been recently decided by the Court in a 5-4 split, or are currently pending in front of the highest court in the land.
Had Democrats shown up to vote in 2014 and retained the U.S. Senate, the process to confirm a Supreme Court justice nominee would look nothing like the partisan chess game it has become to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Rewind to 2010, Dems lost six Senate seats in the midterm TEA Party revolution. But, in 2016, a presidential election year, Democrats have an opportunity to reverse the trend and take back the ground they lost six years ago. Republican U.S. Senators who were elected in the 2010 TEA Party wave are now up for re-election. Many are in states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio. All four of these states were won by Democrat Barack Obama in 2012.
Clearly, this presidential election cycle is like nothing else we have seen before. But, if one thing holds true, and Democrats show up to vote in large numbers as they usually do in a presidential, Dems can and will regain Senate seats lost in the 2010 midterms. Now, more than ever, Democrats need to focus on the Senate, either to serve as a check-and-balance to a GOP White House, or a friend and ally to a Democratic president.
Fellow Democrats need to wake up and realize elections have consequences. Not just presidential elections. Let's take advantage of our presidential performance advantage to make U.S. Senate gains, but then we must pause and do some soul searching to answer the question, "how do we reverse our midterm problem in 2018?' Let's not continue to be haunted by the Ghosts of Midterms Past.
Capri S. Cafaro is a Democratic state senator in Ohio's 32nd district encompassing counties in Northeastern Ohio. She served as Ohio Senate Minority Leader from 2009-2012.

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