Last Friday, I wrote about that Democracy Corps study showing that the conservative base lives in a dreamworld, and the problems this poses for Republicans in the 2010 midterms. They are not the only party with difficulties facing them next year, however. History and demographic trends actually provide problems for Democrats seeking to hold their majorities. And their relative success on major agenda items could determine their fate.

A study put out recently by the progressive group Womens Voices Womens Vote detailed what they call the “rising American electorate,” or RAE voters, and the difficulty of turning this voter out to the polls in non-Presidential-year elections. WVWV defines the RAE as unmarried women, young voters (18-29), and nonwhites. This demographic, which is generally more Democratic, now represents a majority of the voting-age population for the first time, according to Page Gardner, President of WVWV. However, this group is not registered to vote in the numbers reflective of their proportion of the population, nor do they vote in those proportions. And this imbalance is highlighted in a midterm election.

“The big problem is that this group is very mobile,” said Gardner. “They are ten times more likely to move during an election period than the average voter, particularly now, because they are on the front lines of this economic crisis.”

This phenomenon of drop-off voting leads to a more conservative electorate in midterms relative to the overall population, and this trend has increased in recent elections. According to Census data, RAE voters could make up as little as 41% of the electorate in 2010, compared to 46.6% in 2008. Digging into the state-level data, you can see dramatic
shifts, where drop-off voters among RAE populations could mean a loss of 140,000 votes in Nevada, 200,000 votes in Missouri, 900,000 votes in Florida and 2 million votes in California.

Recent polling in current statewide races in New Jersey and Virginia seem to confirm this trend. While few voters are switching sides in these races, a shift in intensity, with GOP voters planning to turn out at higher rates than Democrats, has moved them closer to the Republican column, despite each state having voted for Barack Obama in 2008. While Gardner doesn’t believe that these races are metaphors for 2010, she acknowledges that some of the dynamics among drop-off voters are the same – with Democratic voters turning out at a lower rate, Republicans can take advantage.

In addition to finding mobile RAE voters and foregrounding techniques to make it easier for them to vote (same-day registration, vote by mail, etc.), Gardner does believe that the policies enacted by the Obama Administration will factor greatly on turnout. “Clearly there is an interplay between the achievements of the Administration on policy and intensity on voting. Their lives depend on health care, for example.” The continued White House wavering on issues like the public insurance option have a disproportionate effect on a group of voters who turned out in 2008 “more out of hope than of anger,” according to Gardner. Exit polls show that liberals were the largest ideological swing block in 2008, and so liberal accomplishments are likely to be a major factor in turnout. This frustration from the liberal base was exemplified in a weekend New York Times piece featuring Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

If elected officials primarily consider themselves accountable to voters who can potentially change their voting habits, and thus change the results of elections, it would be unwise to focus solely on the middle of the electorate. Roughly one-third of the swing voters that put Democrats in office are liberals, and as such Democrats need to keep those voters happy. Further, even apart from votes, the partisan and ideological base drives resources–donations, volunteers, positive messaging to family, friends and co-workers–which can in turn be used to acquire votes from non-base groups.

Rather than the shopworn ideas that Nancy Pelosi will drag on the Democratic ticket in 2010, or that the election will turn on individual corrupt members, it seems more likely that Democratic base voters, particularly those in the rising American electorate, hold the key to Democratic chances in 2010. This means that success for the Democrats truly is tied to tangibly achieving progressive agenda goals

David Dayen

David Dayen