2014 Midterms Defined by Low Voter Turnout

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, there’s no shortage of easy explanations for the outcome, and everyone’s an expert. Pundits say the Democrats didn’t allow President Barack Obama to campaign enough, or featured him too much. They didn’t talk enough about the economy. They went too negative, or weren’t negative enough. Some pundits also say that the Republicans ran better, less extreme candidates. Or, variously, that gerrymandering, vote suppression, vote fraud, or big money made the difference. Of course, the real reasons are far more complex. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll comb through the data to learn more, but right now one fact is painfully clear: Citizens showed up to vote at lower rates than in any federal election since the middle of World War II.

Preliminary data from the United States Election Project indicates that national turnout was below 37 percent. That means nearly 2 in 3 eligible voters, or approximately 144 million American citizens—more than the population of Russia—chose to sit this election out. The nation hasn’t seen turnout this low in any federal general election since 1942. Even in recent midterms, when the turnout was remarkably low, it still exceeded 40 percent, meaning millions more Americans voted in 2006 and 2010 than in 2014.

Examples of the problem can be seen in New Mexico and Nevada, which, despite high-profile statewide races at several levels (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, etc., as well as a U.S. Senate race in New Mexico), saw their lowest turnouts in a federal election since before 1980. Nevada in particular stands out: Turnout there plummeted to less than 32 percent, a drop of almost 10 percentage points compared with 2010.

While the overall numbers are dismal, Republicans’ efforts to turn out the vote appeared to be far more successful than Democrats’. In Colorado and Nevada, where the majority of votes are cast by mail or in person in advance of Election Day, data show that Republicans voted at much higher rates than Democrats. 

In Colorado, for instance, where registered voters are evenly divided between the two major parties, over 110,000 more Republicans had voted as of the day before the election than Democrats. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, and it will be an important subject for study in the coming months.

There were a few bright spots in terms of turnout, however. In Wisconsin, 57 percent of eligible citizens voted, the second-highest rate in the nation behind Maine. Despite concerns about possible confusion regarding voter ID in particular (the courts had enjoined the state’s ID law for this election), Wisconsin election officials did a remarkable job accommodating the high turnout.

The real story of the 2014 election might not be the issues or the candidates. Instead, it may be the voters. Over the coming months those of us who study elections should seek to answer these questions: Who chose to participate, who didn’t, and why? And will they still be on the sidelines in 2016 and 2018?

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