the disaffection election

I learned in DC last week that political consultants are predicting a very low turnout election in 2012. Voter participation will be suppressed by a combination of dissatisfied “base” voters on both sides of the aisle, discouraged independents who won’t believe that their votes can help the economy, a weak Republican field, maybe $8 billion of spending devoted mostly to negative advertising, and new state legislation designed to keep people from voting.

I agree that’s the most realistic prediction, but I would complicate matters just a bit. The 2004 and 2008 elections were marked by relatively high turnout among Americans of all ages (including those of  special interest to CIRCLE: youth). But something about 2008 was more distinctive than its high turnout rate. Large numbers of people– especially young people and left-of-center activists–flocked to one specific operation: the Obama Campaign. Total youth turnout only inched up compared to 2004, but Barack Obama won an utterly unprecedented two-thirds of the youth vote. Most likely, the turnout of left-leaning young people soared, while young conservatives actually stayed home. Further evidence for that thesis: young African Americans set the all-time record for turnout for any young ethnic group, while voting at least 22-1 for Obama.

Not only did many people choose Obama-Biden on Election Day, but they channeled their energy and activism into the official presidential campaign apparatus (or else stayed home entirely, if they weren’t Democrats). For instance, 2008 set a record for the rate of campaign volunteering among young people, as they signed up to knock on doors for Barack. Meanwhile, a vast proportion of all the money donated to political causes flowed directly to the Campaign, with the result that grassroots groups were actually starved of resources.

So I think the question is not whether any presidential campaign will mobilize high levels of interest and support in 2012. That is virtually impossible. The question is whether people will participate at reasonably high rates in other organizations and movements, ranging from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street–and also including the full range of single-issue organizations: environmental, civil rights, pro- and anti-abortion, pro- and anti-immigration, and so on.

The answer will not only influence who wins the White House, but also how American politics unfolds over the next decade. If the electorate is simply demobilized, I would expect current trends to continue. The two parties will battle bitterly over spending levels and priorities as resources shrink. But if the electorate turns its attention to independent political movements, there will be pressure for the official parties to reconfigure and build new coalitions. For better or for worse, the situation will become quite a bit more fluid.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.