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Huge GOP Victory Comes Amid Minor Turnout Increase

Campaigns & Elections: Voter Turnout this November

Frustration with the inability of the Obama Administration to reverse the continuing high levels of unemployment, underemployment, and foreclosures drove voters to vote against the party in power in the White House, producing major Republican victories on all levels of governance, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Turnout increased only modestly, with more states reporting lower turnout than reporting gains.

These were among the principle findings of a report on turnout in the 2010 mid-term election released today by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate and based on the final vote tabulations of the Associated Press.

A set of charts to provide the numerical basis of the statistical conclusions in this report and notes which explain both the terms and methodology used for this report is available in a PDF download.

Based on those tabulations, the Center estimates that when all the votes are finally counted—and there are millions still to be counted in the far West—about 90 million Americans will have gone to the polls, a turnout rate of 42 percent of age-eligible citizens, only slightly higher than the 40.8 percent who voted in 2006.

Republicans outpolled the Democrats by three percentage points, reversing a similar gap in the Democrats’ favor when they regained control of both houses of Congress in 2006. But that gain came largely through fewer citizens voting for the Democrats rather than a surge in GOP votes.

On the basis of votes for the U.S. House (the measure likely to be less prone to the influence of major races in individual states), Democratic turnout was down 4.7 percentage points from 20.7 in 2006—the percent of eligible citizens—to 16.0. Republican turnout was up a more modest 2.1 percentage points from 17.4 percentage points in 2006 to 19.5 in this election.

While overall, when final votes are counted and certified, there is likely to be a modest turnout increase, at least 24 states had lower turnout (pending the vote counts in California, Oregon, and Washington, which may not be fully completed for weeks and are not included in this report), while 22 had higher turnout. But only Georgia reported a record high mid-term turnout, while Idaho and Nebraska recorded record lows.

Among the states with lower turnout were Maine, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, and Rhode Island—states with hotly contested and highly publicized races.

“Under normal circumstances, when there is a recession, the party in power in the White House suffers and turnout increases substantially—as occurred in 1982 and 1992,” said Curtis Gans, the Center’s director. “This is a more prolonged and deeper recession than any since the 1930s Depression, but while the Democrats suffered greatly at all levels—Congress, governors’ offices and state legislatures—it was not accompanied by the normal turnout surge.”

“This makes it more likely that the public sees this as a negative mandate against the Obama administration’s inability to, in general, turn the economy around and, in particular, turn the employment situation around—which has 30 million Americans either officially unemployed and getting benefits, out of the labor force, and not receiving benefits or marginally part-time employed and not making ends meet, while others fear they will be next,” Gans said. “While the Republicans cleverly and effectively used the administration’s failure to reverse the unemployment situation as an evidence of the failure of government intervention and a mandate for smaller government, it is not clear that the people said any such thing. They, too, will be judged by their results.”

There is evidence in these preliminary turnout figures that the Tea Party energized the GOP base in some states (helping to produce higher turnout in Delaware, South Carolina, Texas, and Colorado) but they also likely turned some potential GOP voters off in states where their candidates won the nomination (including Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania). And the results for Tea Party candidates who won nominations from party-leadership-backed candidates was decidedly mixed (where the Tea Party may have snatched defeat from the jaws of likely victory in Alaska, Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, and Connecticut) and made races in other places closer than they needed to be (Pennsylvania and Maine, to name two.)

A better picture of how the electorate views the political situation may be the registration statistics included in this report. The news for 2010 is that Democratic registration and registration for neither major party gained slightly and GOP registration declined equally slightly in the 20 states (of 28 states and the District of Columbia that register by party) which have so far reported official registration.

The larger and longer picture is contained in the trend lines. Democratic registration is down from more than 40 percent of the eligible electorate in the early 1970s to a figure in the low 30s now and recently. Republican registration has held constant with increases in the South, due to two-party competition there in the aftermath of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and decreases in the rest of the country—from nearly 30 percent to the lower 20s. But the eye-popping figure is the continuing advance of those who register for neither party, which has grown in every biennial election since the early 1960s and has gone from less than 2 percent of eligible citizens in 1960 to nearly 21 percent now.

“It seems clear that the public is exhibiting a growing lack of faith in both major parties, a lack of faith exacerbated by the failure to successfully address major problems, to undertake foreign adventures without public support and to portray politics at the lowest possible level in the biennial campaigns,” Gans said.

GOP turnout reached record mid-term levels in five states: Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina (with two Tea Party oriented statewide candidates). Democratic turnout reached modern record mid-term lows in seven states: Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri North Dakota, and Wyoming.