The day after the election, news sources declared Republicans had been “drubbed.” Democratic candidates talked about the vindication of their platform. Republicans finally seemed to be taking notice of the nation’s changing positions on social issues and demographics. The consensus seemed to be the “conservative coalition” was dead, that the group of Republicans who propelled Bush to power was fragmented and couldn’t compete with an influx of minorities and young voters.
I really wish I could be as optimistic about this as most liberals. But sadly, I don’t think this election is a good model for those that will occur over the next four years. Our country may be getting younger and more diverse, but it’s not really that demographically different from two years ago, when Republicans swept elections nationwide.
No, something else is going on here: Young people and minorities are much less likely to show up for midterm elections than presidential ones. In most wards around the University of Wisconsin campus, the Dane County Clerk’s Office showed the fall 2010 elections attracted barely half the people who showed up at the polls in 2012. As a probably result of this, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., lost his Senate seat, and Gov. Scott Walker was elected governor.
It’s not really to either party’s advantage to tout the fact that its performance depends largely on the election cycle. As a result, Democrats are branding 2012 as proof the American people are moving widely to the left, just as Republicans in 2010 portrayed their victories as a rejection of President Barack Obama’s presidency. But neither is really accurate — there aren’t that many swing voters. Instead, a significant percentage of the Democratic base just sits out for three years out of four.
There are a few reasons young people (including UW students) show up so much less frequently during non-presidential elections. First, there’s less social pressure to go to the polls for local elections, and a lack of recognition for candidates. People know who Obama is and what he stands for much better than, say, former State Supreme Court Justice candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg. In addition, students have less free time than people with regular nine-to-five workdays.
All of this explains students’ behavior, but it doesn’t excuse it. In terms of immediate and personal effects, state and local elections are probably more important than those for the president. Walker and Mayor Paul Soglin have both pursued controversial agendas, and the results are obvious. Tuition is rising. Union power has been clipped. Panhandling is illegal on State Street.
If Democratic students are serious about their political beliefs — and want to avoid the political humiliation that brought Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Walker to power — they must show up to the polls more than once every four years. Elections that don’t play out on a grandiose scale are no less important than those that do. And regular voting is the only way to prevent the balance of power from tipping back and forth between the parties every other year.
Gus McNair ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English and journalism.