“It stung like hell.”
– Georgia Democratic Party Chair, DuBose Porter, in a conciliatory email to party activists
If a dramatic election happens and no one votes, does it still mean the electorate changes to purple?
The finger pointing over who was to blame for Tuesday’s devastating losses started as soon as the polls closed – maybe even before in places like Colorado and Kentucky, where flawed campaigns and unforced errors by candidates killed off an incumbent and skewered a rising star.
In Georgia, the senate campaign of Democrat Michelle Nunn was shaking its heads in near disbelief. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported it:
“As soon as the GOP nomination was settled, the names ‘Harry Reid’ and ‘Barack Obama’ were hung around Nunn’s neck like a two-headed albatross. She couldn’t get out from under it, her team said.”
But Democrats and political analysts all realize that, for the most part, it wasn’t the candidates. It wasn’t the message. It wasn’t the low approval numbers for President Obama in states that could have been in play, or the billions spent by outside groups to link Democratic candidates to him and the majority leader.
It was the voters – those who chose to show up and those who stayed home.
“So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” President Obama acknowledged at a post-election briefing, Wednesday afternoon, adding, “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
As Politico rightly points out, the president’s choice of words indicate he doesn’t see the Republicans’ big night as any kind of mandate from the people, since it’s only a third that chose to have their voices heard. A lopsided third, but a third nonetheless.
Who showed up? In Georgia, even with a turnout that was better than the national average, at just under 50 percent, neither young folks nor minorities voted in sufficient numbers to achieve the results Democrats were looking for. It was older white people who did their civic duty. According to exit polling reported by ABC News, only 13 percent of those under 30 voted nationally, down six points from the way they turned out in 2012. Yet in the Peach State, 59 percent of that demographic went for Michelle Nunn.
But the real damage to the Nunn and Jason Carter campaigns came from a lack of African American voters both registered and at the polls. While African Americans accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Democrats’ tally in Georgia, it was only about the same as the numbers who voted in 2012. In order to win, there had to be an increase in voter registration of a half-a-million voters. Voter registration groups were only able to garner 85,000.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who was slow to show his enthusiasm for Carter’s campaign, pointed out the shortfall to the New York Times:
“‘We needed to change the electorate,’ Mr. Reed said. He faulted the campaigns of Michelle Nunn, who was following in her father’s footsteps in running for the Senate, and Jason Carter, a grandson of Jimmy Carter who was running for governor, for not spending more time and resources to register and turn out what he said were roughly 600,000 unregistered black voters in Georgia, and 200,000 unregistered Latinos.”
Why were so many needed? “The pros estimated they needed 500,000 new black voters in order to get 200,000 to the polls,” reports Walter Jones of Insider Advantage.
William Boone, a poli-sci professor at Clark University, told Jones that:
“…blacks tend to think of the president as the most significant office and figure other posts are not important enough to bother voting over. In a sense, that makes Democrats victims of their own presidential campaigning where they overpromise what control of the White House means without explaining the role of Congress, governors and legislators.”
Jones goes on to point out:
“Consider that black males typically have a 66 percent turnout in presidential elections but just a 44 percent rate in non-presidential years. Compare that to white males’ 75 in presidential years and 58 percent in off years, a 22-percent[age point] falloff versus a 17.”
While volunteers were using Obama-proven targeting methods to make phone calls and knock on doors to motivate people to vote, it just wasn’t enough. “Some of my biggest, hottest precincts, there was no activity, no street corner activity, no poll activity,” lamented State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) to the AJC. “They were running an Obama-style campaign without Obama. It’s like doing ‘Othello’ without Othello.” Or an audience.
In the end, Michelle Nunn was only able to capture 23 percent of the white vote. Their estimates said they needed to capture at least 30 percent. Republican David Perdue took 70 percent. Seventy.
The stark contrast was evident by the actual impact in two of the least racially diverse counties in the state. The AJC reported Wednesday:
“In his march to victory, Senator-elect Perdue, had his best showing (84 percent of the vote) in Pierce County, which has a white voting population of 83 percent. He did worst (15 percent) in Clayton County, which has a white voting population of 14 percent.”
How did they manage to grab such a large chunk of the electorate? During the last week of the campaign, Louisiana’s incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu told NBC’s Chuck Todd it was something insidious in our social and political DNA. “I’ll be very, very honest with you,” she said, “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.”
Former evangelist and author Frank Schaeffer says it comes down to two things – lies and racism:
“Since the economy has rebounded, health care reform has worked, all that remained for the GOP was to lie. And since the base of the GOP is white aging southern evangelicals the GOP was in luck. These are easy folks to lie to. That’s because they already accept an alternative version of reality. Also, of course since the lies are about a black man, that doesn’t hurt. Yes, race is ‘still’ an issue.”
“This is about race,” a particularly nasty viewer told a C-Span host on a call-in show, Thursday. “The Republicans hate that n—– Obama.”
While that may be at least partly true, it’s important to keep in mind no group is politically monolithic (Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal received 10 percent of the black vote in his reelection, after all), and there is definitely work to do for the Democrats to reach out to white Americans. “Republicans know they have to expand their base to include minority voters,” state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D) told the AJC, “and we need to do a better job expanding ours to include white voters.”
Despite the Republican slate’s unexpected margin of victory, Georgia’s Democratic Party chair, DuBose Porter, was optimistic.”Make no mistake about it ya’ll,” he wrote to supporters, “Georgia was, and is, in play.”
The goal remains to expanded the voter rolls for 2016, so the state can make a tectonic shift and awaken from this apathetic slumber.
“I understand taking a bit of time to lick these wounds. But not too much time. We have work to do. We will continue to build. We will continue to raise hope. We will continue to believe in Democrats.”
Two years is not a lot of time. Before the next state legislature convenes and tries to limit voter registration, we need to go back out there and get more than 500,000 new voters registered. Two years, starting last week. Go.
PS: Click here for a full list of states with on-line voter registration. If you live in Georgia, you can register anytime through the Secretary of State’s website: https://registertovote.sos.ga.gov/GAOLVR/