During the decade from 2000-2010, voter turnout increased in each election. In mid-term elections 2002 turnout was higher than 1998, 2006 turnout was higher than 2002 and 2010 turnout was higher than 2006. In presidential elections, 2000 turnout was higher than 1996, 2004 turnout was higher than 2000 and 2008 turnout was higher than 2004. It is a trend than almost certainly will not continue in the election of 2012.
Why? Let us count the ways: 1. Because the increases in the 2000-2010 decade were election specific and aberrational. 2. Because youth won't turn out in anywhere near the numbers they did in 2004 and 2008. 3. Because the low Republican turnout in their 2012 primaries and caucuses and the highly emotional divisions within the party will have an impact on general election participation. 4. Because core Democratic constituencies are disappointed with the president's performance. 5. Because neither the president nor his most likely opponent are able to connect with the electorate on an emotional level. 6. Because we're likely to see a truly ugly campaign.
A few words about each:
The presidential election of 2000 was one of the closest in American history and followed a 1996 election which witnessed the lowest turnout since 1924. The 2002 mid-term turnout was higher than the 1998 turnout which was the lowest since 1942. The polarization created by the American launch and prosecution of the war in Iraq led to a mobilization for both parties which, in turn, produced the highest turnout in 2004 since 1968. That polarization carried over in a more one-sided, anti-Bush election of 2006 which eked out a higher turnout than 2002. A combination of factors -- the continuing war in Iraq, the continued polarization of American politics, the very evident onset of recession (which almost always leads to increased turnout and a defeat for the party in power in the White House) and the unique and perceived transformative candidacy of Barack Obama which brought an unprecedented percentage of African Americans to the polls and mobilized the idealistic and college-educated young -- produced the highest 2008 turnout since 1960 and the third highest turnout since women won the vote in 1920. And the 2010 election was the obverse of the elections of 2006 and 2008, higher turnout against a different party in the White House in the midst of a recession. Of these factors only likely high African American turnout and a continuing recession remain, and the recession this year is more likely to influence the results of the election rather than boosting participation.
Young Americans (aged 18-24 for purposes of comparison with previous elections) participated in 2004 and then again in 2008 at the highest rate since 1972 when 18- to 20-year-olds were first enfranchised nationally. It led some optimists to proclaim that a new "Millennial" generation of idealistic activism had burst on the scene. But that surge in turnout was limited to the college educated and college resident. Those with lesser education levels had abysmal voting rates and even with respect to the college educated, the surge has not extended to elections for other offices. The majority of college educated voters were driven by anger at President Bush and the U.S. creation of and involvement in the war in Iraq in 2004. They were motivated by hope in 2008. Their efforts did not succeed in 2004 and Obama the president did not fulfill the hopes invested in Obama the candidate. There is no comparable motivating climate in 2012.
On another level, the young have become progressively depoliticized. Over the past several years, there has been an upsurge in youth participation in community service programs, which unfortunately has not carried over to political engagement. The minimal curriculum mandates in high schools are four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of languages, two years of science and one year of history or civics. No longer is citizenship considered a primary purpose of education on any level. The results of this lack of commitment have been borne out, most recently in the 2011 edition of the annual survey of incoming four-year college freshmen (203,000 of them) by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. Only 33 percent thought it important to keep up-to-date on political news (compared to 70 percent in the 1960s). Only 10 percent have worked in a political campaign (compared to 15 percent in 1974). Only 22 percent voted in a student election (compared to 79 percent in 1968). And only 7 percent participated in student government. Not a profile of an engaged "Millennial" generation nor a prescription for high youth turnout.
Turnout in the Republican primaries and caucuses has been low. Florida's primary and Nevada's caucuses drew a smaller percentage of voters than 2008. The New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries had lower turnout than the last hotly contested races in 2000, and New Hampshire only exceeded its 2008 turnout because independents could make their voice heard in only one party's primary. Polls indicate that a majority of Republicans are lukewarm about their choices. The party is also deeply divided between the moderately conservative and the deeply conservative. Ultimately the party will settle on a candidate and unite against Obama but the lowered enthusiasm level of one faction or another will likely lead to lowered voting levels.
The dominant emotion among the most loyal of Democratic constituencies -- labor, liberals, minorities -- is disappointment borne of unfulfilled high hopes. They grant the president accomplishments in rescuing the economy from free fall, health care, expanded financial regulation, and eliminating Osama Bin Laden, among others, but they also see failures in the area of jobs, immigration reform, civil liberties, and effectively reversing the rightward drift of American politics. There is no doubt about whom these elements will support. There is considerable doubt as to whether they will participate with the same enthusiasm as in 2008.
Neither Obama nor Romney (still the likely GOP nominee) as personalities connect on an emotional level with the electorate. Both offer only modest hope -- Obama, that he can implement his new more liberal and aggressive economic agenda in the face of a continuing congressional blockade; Romney, that his economic agenda will succeed when the same ideas have failed before.
Whatever positive feelings the candidates create will be overwhelmed by an unprecedented tsunami of tit-for-tat attack advertising, not only in the presidential race but in all other major statewide races. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision unleashing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums will ensure that the volume of advertising will reach geometrically new highs. The currently amoral consultant industry will ensure that their content will reach ever new lows. The voting public, in turn and especially in the middle and among independents, will be faced with a perceived choice between bad and awful, under a miasma of advertising that denigrates the entirety of American politics.
Some pundits have proffered apocalyptic judgments about the stakes in the 2012 election. The outcome will be determined on a much narrower basis -- the level and direction of the unemployment numbers by early summer when citizen feelings of hope or despair are likely to be formed. If the positive trends of the last two months continue, Obama will win, and especially against the backdrop of Tea Party advocacy and tactics, the Democrats may recapture the House and maintain a majority in the Senate. If the jobless rate stagnates or moves in a negative direction, Obama cannot win. There is no certainty about either outcome. But what is certain is that a smaller percentage of American citizens will vote.