Insights Into General Elections, and A Prescription for Improving Primaries:

A Review of Thomas Patterson's The Vanishing Voter


Friday, Jan. 31, 2003

As its title suggests, Thomas E. Patterson's recent book, The Vanishing Voter, explores the extent of, and the reason for, the decline in voting rates among Americans over the past few decades. Although the phenomenon itself has been much chronicled, Patterson's book distinguishes itself by approaching its subject with exceptional rigor.

With what must have been a wheelbarrow-full of money from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Patterson and his Kennedy School of Government colleagues undertook a large-scale project before, during, and after the last Presidential election - surveying citizens on the their voting habits. The project began around Thanksgiving 1999, continued through the 2000 election, and (as it turned out) proceeded even beyond Election Day, through the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision. The result was over 100,000 pieces of data, and a great deal more information than had been previously available about why Americans no longer vote in the numbers they used to.

How Much Has the Voting Rate Fallen?

Between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of eligible voters who went to the polls in the general election fell from 64% to 55%. That's a significant decline: as Patterson notes, just that nine percent drop represents the equivalent of all the votes cast in twenty-four of the fifty states in 2000.

Other calculations show an even more striking decline. For instance, the usual figure that one reads in the newspapers is 51%, not 55%. That number counts all possible voters, not all eligible voters; that is, it counts non-citizen residents, felons and others not qualified to vote.

Another alternative is to look at non-Southern data alone - on the ground that, given the barriers to access to the right to vote in the South in 1960, it is the more reliable indicator of the change in the desire and inclination of Americans to vote. Using this means of calculation, remarkably, the voting rate fell from 70% to 50% over the same 1960-90 period.

These statistics lead directly to another question, which I wish Patterson had spent a bit more time on: Why should one think that voting rates are all that important in the first place?

Patterson's succinct answer is this: "Who votes does matter." Thus, he is less concerned with the fact that fewer Americans, percentage-wise, are voting, than he is with the makeup of the group of non-voters.

Patterson's real beef seems to be that the young, the poor, and the blase tend disproportionately to stand on the sidelines. This leaves the field open for the wealthier and the older (who are disproportionately Republican) to vote. It also opens the way for single interest groups to exert influence far greater than is warranted based on the number of their supporters they garner, as I will discuss below.

Is it an intractable policy problem that these groups have low voter turnout? Or is it simply a failing of the modern Democratic Party to successfully mobilize its base? Patterson doesn't weigh in on this key question. But from either perspective, there is a sad irony to be found in the persistent and growing tendency of those who are poor in wealth, but rich in numbers, to squander one resource as to which they have a natural advantage.

Why Do So Many Citizens Fail to Vote? The Race to the Middle Is One Reason.

Why do nearly half of our fellow citizens fail to vote? While Patterson does not use the hackneyed phrase, his answer, in effect, is that we reached, some time ago, the "end of history" - in the sense of the end of history's great struggles. On this point, I believe he is correct.

Our politics are now oriented around relatively narrow interest groups - rather than a grand clash of, say, labor and capital. The result is the precise equivalent of the scenario that every first-day economics student is presented with. If two frankfurter stands are allowed to sell on one beach, where will they locate? Answer: right next to each other, in the exact middle. There's then little reason to choose one stand over another. Similarly, now, there's often little reason to choose one political party over another, as both verge inevitably towards the middle. (Is it any wonder, then, that the 2000 election split the country, and the State of Florida, almost precisely in half?)

In the era of interest-dominated politics, the middle is where both parties locate their overarching rhetoric - all the while cutting side deals with the various interest groups that control motivated slivers of voters. In a typically wry turn of phrase, Patterson dubs this the "Department Store Santa" effect (connoting that each Party now has a gift for everyone). And the evidence bears out Patterson's thesis: In 1948, the Democratic Party platform weighed in at 2,800 words; in contrast, the 1984 version was a 47,800-word care package for dozens of different constituencies.

The Decline of Political Parties, and Its Implications

Patterson is particularly engaging in drawing out the implications of the advent of this new age of politics. Chief among them is the decline of political parties.

This has at least two rather dramatic implications. First, in the absence of a strong party, the electoral contest, by default, must be oriented around the personality of the candidate. Thus we have "boxers or briefs," negative ads, and the general tabloidization of Presidential politics. (Indeed, almost no story got more air time during the last election cycle than a non-story about a twenty-years'-past driving infraction.)

Second, and perhaps more ominously, there is a vicious cycle at work as regards interest groups. Their proliferation weakens the party, and the weakening of the party creates a vacuum. The interest groups are then both happy and able to fill the vacuum, with money and resources, thus strengthening their influence. Then the cycle repeats itself, over and over.

What does this all have to do with voting rates? Plenty. Those associated strongly with a party are 47% more likely to vote than those with weak party affiliations. And the number of those who have weak party affiliations is growing every election cycle. That means more power for the party-capturing interest groups, and less voting for the party-ambivalent citizen.

Are Primaries Important? Patterson Argues They Are.

After exploring these ideas about general elections in which parties clash, Patterson moves to the second half of his book, which addresses primary elections for party nominations. It is less persuasive than the first section, and indeed, there is something of a disconnect between the two.

The Vanishing Voter project, by virtue of the time period over which it occurred, collected vastly more data on the primary season than on the general election. However, there is not a particularly strong connection with primary voting and general election voting. Moreover, the two are really rather different beasts.

Primaries and general elections do suffer from a related problem: Mootness. Very few primaries matter because most everything is decided by Super Tuesday, if not before. And very few general election contests matter, for a similar (though not identical reason): most states are safely in the column of one party or the other by the general election.

Nevertheless, Patterson's book failed to convince me that an in-depth examination of the primary process sheds all that much light on the general election phenomenon that garners headlines. Granted, the Vanishing Voter surveys showed that interested citizens vote at higher rates - but that is almost a tautology. And granted, the primary process is an important tool for getting citizens interested in the general election. But most primaries are utter irrelevancies and thus (appropriately) fail to generate local interest.

How Can Primaries Be Made More Relevant?

The idea may be a constructive one. At least it underlines the problem with putting undue emphasis on New Hampshire's and other early primaries. However, I fear it might simply recreate, and in some ways compound, the current situation.

The current political reality is that, if you do not raise enough money before New Hampshire to be effectively on the ground in the Super Tuesday states, then it really does not matter how you do in New Hampshire anymore. Under Patterson's system, the need to raise money before New Hampshire for a huge Super-Duper Tuesday would only exacerbate the problem.

What About the Electoral College?

As to general elections, Patterson calls, somewhat faintly perhaps, for the elimination of the Electoral College. He does not say exactly what he would replace it with. A true plebiscite? A modified College - where, say, all states were required, as Maine does now, to vote their electors in proportion to the popular vote, rather than on a winner-takes-all basis?

Either change would be radical, and in my view certainly the move to a national election would be profoundly unwise. One need not tarry over this issue, however, as Patterson is surely correct in his tacit recognition of the practical reality that the Electoral College is with us for the foreseeable future.

A Book That Leads With Its Best Material

A significant chunk of The Vanishing Voter is explicitly data-driven, and, on the whole, less interesting to the lay reader. The book also includes an entire section on the role of the media that, while cogent, has a shopworn feel.

The first part of the book, however, is Patterson at his best. His thesis (what I call the "end of history" argument) is supported by fresh and voluminous data, and he makes a persuasive argument on its behalf. On the whole, this is by any measure a thought-provoking book, and a valuable contribution to the study of elections in America.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

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