11/15/2006 - Historic elections like last Tuesday's inevitably invite wrong inferences. With big political changes in Washington, there is a natural tendency to make sweeping conclusions about how the electorate has changed. Here's a quick list of important things about voter trends to keep in mind when considering what we have learned about how America voted this November:
First, the Democratic win is not a sign of political realignment. Yes, the Democrats won the popular vote, and the exit polls showed that more Democrats than Republicans voted (by 2 percentage points). But the popular vote margin favoring the Democrats was relatively modest, even though it resulted in many Democratic victories. Democrats won by almost the same margin by which Republicans won in 2002.
The turnout pattern was not that unusual either. A plurality of the electorate has been Democratic in three of the last five elections. Notable exceptions were in 2002 and 2004, when Karl Rove's voter mobilization efforts bested the Democrats' efforts (as shown in the chart).
In absolute terms, Republican turnout was probably on par with the '02 election - G.O.P. voters did wake up in the end, as the last round of pre-election polls suggested, but it was too little, too late. Strong Democratic voter enthusiasm trumped the usual tendency of Republicans to vote at higher rates than Democrats and also overcame the much vaunted G.O.P. get-out-the-vote push.
Read the full backgrounder The Real Message of the Midterms on the Pew Research Center Web site.