When it comes to voter turnout, 2012 is starting to look an awful lot like 1996.
In 1996, a wounded Democratic incumbent faced an uninspiring Republican challenger. Sound familiar? That year, only 49 percent of the electorate voted – the lowest in the modern era.
Back then, President Bill Clinton had been elected on a wave of enthusiasm four years earlier. By his next election, that enthusiasm was wavering.
In 1996, Bob Dole was not really loved by conservatives. It’s possible he wasn’t loved by anyone. But it was his turn. He was a mainstream throwback, a “country club Republican.” Serious. Or at least not wacky.
Yep, this is starting to sound familiar.
Before we go any further, I concede we don’t know for sure that Romney is the GOP nominee, but the smart money says so. Herman Cain is sliding, Newt Gingrich is next on deck. Neither seems likely to stop Romney. And while I Romney is a modestly better candidate than Dole, at least on the surface and the TV screen, he’s carrying a lot of flip-flop baggage, not to mention the distrust of true-blue conservatives and Christian evangelicals suspicious of his Mormon religion.
And let’s stop to note that, at least so far, Barack Obama is no Clinton. The economic situation is different (a point to Clinton) but the personal situation is different (a point to Obama). While the president’s base is unhappy, Romney doesn’t even have a base. Instead, he has a wobbly sense of inevitability.
How the election will end is anyone’s guess. The New York Times ran an interesting analysis recently that suggests there’s a very good chance we’ll be saying President Romney in the near future. But here I’m talking not about who wins, but how many people vote.
Any number of web sites will give you the turnout results of previous elections. Starting in 1960, turnout was just over 63 percent. It dropped steadily (in part because 18 year olds were suddenly eligible to vote, changing the math), moved around a bit, and then in 1992 leaped higher with Clinton’s big win over an incumbent Republican.
After that big turnout, four years later we hit a modern low of 49 percent. That’s the basement, or so it seemed. Turnout climbed, hit 57 percent in 2008 as Obama energized the youth and presented us with the nation’s first African-American president.
“Yes we can,” people said in 2008. In 2012, it may be more like “no we won’t.” At least when it comes time to vote.
Assuming an economy stuck in the doldrums, assuming no major international crisis, assuming Romney is the Republican nominee, I expect turnout in 2012 to truly disappoint and come in below what we saw in 1996.
The political rule of thumb is Republicans do better in low turnout elections, but 1996 proves the rule is, to borrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, more like a guideline. This is no 1996. Enthusiasm for Obama has waned. Enthusiasm for Romney never existed. Punch these two factors into your spreadsheet, push the calculate button, and out pops a potentially awful turnout, perhaps 48 percent, perhaps lower.
And it’s never good when, in a democracy, so few make so important a decision. Regardless of who wins.