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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: It’s all about turnout! (Oh, and demographics, too)

‘It’s the economy, stupid!” That scrawled sign, taped to a wall in the ’92 Clinton presidential campaign’s war room to remind workers of what the important issue was, has become political history. It’s repeated in every campaign, including this one.

But the truth is, it’s also the turnout. And demographics. That was probably true in ’92. That was certainly true in 2008. It was true this year. And it was true – though many deny it – in 2010.

Yes, 2010. The year conservative Republicans, led by the new and militant Tea Partiers, swept to victory nearly everywhere. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the GOP overwhelmed Democrats who’d been in the majority. In the U.S. Senate, it cut seriously into the Democrats’ majority. And in states, it claimed state house after state house.

Here in New Hampshire, it was a near-total rout. The Senate and House, for two terms controlled by the Democrats, suddenly had veto-proof GOP majorities. The party captured the state’s two congressional seats. The little-known but all-powerful Executive Council went from Democratic control to all-Republican. Only popular Democratic Gov. John Lynch survived.

Democrats were stunned into silence. Victorious Republicans understandably crowed that the power of their ideas and the electorate’s loathing of the Democrats’ policies had caused a revolution. Cowed pundits for the most part went along. New Hampshire was again a red state! The populace was aroused, outraged, radicalized! They had spoken! The new powers in Concord had a mandate!

And thereafter ensued two years in which the victorious majority ran rampant in the State House, passing one extremist bill after another, only rarely restrained by the governor’s veto. Remember, this crew was veto-proof.

And then came election day, November 2012. And it’s a near-Democratic sweep. The two congressional seats go to the Democratic candidates. The House flips back to Demicratic control, the GOP in the Senate has only a slender majority. The Executive Council has a Democratic majority again, and a new Democrat is governor-elect.

Holy moly, clearly the people of New Hampshire are flibberty-gibbets who can’t make up their minds, who are like one of those bright, whirling pinwheels that used to be lawn ornaments in windy places!

Except that they’re not. They just don’t always turn out to vote.

A lot of us, especially those of a certain age, are regular voters. We started voting young, usually urged by parents, and we’ve been voting ever since. We nod to the folks holding the

signs outside the polling place, we greet the poll workers inside as old friends – which many of them are – and we amble through the process almost by habit.

But a whole lot of others do not always vote. And this is true across the U.S. The vote total in 2008 for the nation was more than 132 million people. By contrast, in 2010 barely more than 90 million went to the polls. And while the precise total for 2012 isn’t available yet, the turnout was comparable to, if slightly below, the turnout four years ago.

The difference here in the Granite State is striking. In 2008, close to 720,000 came out to vote. That was, according to the U.S. Election Project, 72.5 percent of eligible voters. In 2010, just over 461,000 voters showed up, only 46.2 percent of those eligible – a huge decline in numbers. More than 250,000 people voted here in the 2008 election than voted two years later.

In New Hampshire, according to the secretary of state’s office, it was another large turnout this year. Just 600 fewer people voted here than voted in 2008. And across the country the story was the same, although both the turnout and the Democrats’ margin were down slightly from four years ago.

In each of those elections, the gender and racial breakdowns remained about the same. The dramatic difference was age. In 2008, voters under age 35 accounted for 18 percent of the total. That fell to 11 percent in 2010. Voters aged 65 or older accounted for only 16 percent of those who voted in 2008, but in 2010 they constituted a whopping 23 percent of the vote.

Older voters – those over age 65 – are absolutely the most conservative voters. In 2008, they were the only age bloc that supported John McCain. Younger voters – under age 35 – are the most liberal. In 2010, they were the only age group that supported Democrats. They came out in force this year. And as in ’08, Democrats gained.

Aside from differences in voters’ ages, the Democrats have had a huge advantage over the GOP with a whole raft of subsets of voters. African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans have overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates through most recent elections, and the Democratic tilt has become dramatic – each of those groups this year favored Democrats by at least 75 percent. Women are also significantly more likely to vote Democratic. This year was no different. And now gay voters are lining up with Democrats as well.

So here’s what the breakdown tells us. The GOP is overwhelmingly supported by older, and primarily whiter, voters. Period.

The Democrats have the advantage with everyone else. And that category – everyone else – is growing each year. In fact, the two most quickly expanding minority groups in the nation are Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Right now, most prominent Republicans publicly insist that the problem isn’t their message. They simply have to tweak it, get a better spokesman to sell it, maybe say it more nicely. In truth, that message doesn’t really work with a majority of Americans. The Republicans are going to have to go through some serious soul-searching about whether they really want to be part of 21st century America.

They’ve already squandered a lot of time. If it’s true that voting early is the best predictor of a lifetime voting habit, a whole lot of young Hispanic and Asian-American voters, repelled by the GOP’s exclusionary and hostile messages, are embarked on a Democratic voting path And it will only get worse for the GOP as this country continues to get younger and, both racially and culturally, less white.

But Democrats have to worry, too, particularly in the near future. If they don’t want to crash and burn again in 2014, they have to learn how to get their voters to the polls in non-presidential years, when the elections are boring and generate a whole lot less publicity, less excitement.

In other words, they have to turn occasional voters into all-the-time voters. Lots of luck with that.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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