Five Things You Didn’t Know about the 2012 Elections

With dozens of cable, radio, web-based, and print outlets covering the campaign, obviously there’s a ton of punditry out there. Much of it, we’ve noticed, is repetitive, one-sided, or simply misinformed. GAI is hoping to add something useful to the discussion that you may not have heard or read yet. Let us know what you think. (By the way, we will provide a full-fledged election-watching guide November 1.)

1. Voter turnout is, well, not that bad
Experts have complained since the beginning of the republic about public apathy toward politics in general and campaigns in particular. Often, the story is, this is manifested in the fact that people don’t bother to vote. And a lot of people don’t. However it is the case that, at least in relative terms, voter turnout has been pretty good in 21st century presidential elections. 2004 and 2008 saw a significant uptick in turnout (percentage of the age eligible population voting), with about 57% participating. In 2008 turnout was 15% better than it was in 2000. The ’04 and ‘08 numbers were easily the highest in 40 years. We shall see what will happen in 2012, but with so much at stake in the federal level elections, there is every reason to think turnout will be pretty good again.

2. Negative ads don’t really work—at least not in the way people think
The assumption is that the onslaught of negative ads (and there are more now than ever) must be because there is overwhelming research indicating that these ads change people’s minds, causing them to vote against the candidate being attacked. In fact the research is pretty clear that in general these ads do not have exactly that effect. There is good evidence that negative ads energize voters who have made up their minds, leading to enhanced turnout; there isn’t much evidence that minds are changed or preferences are influenced.

3. The U.S. House: The GOP’s built-in advantage
Republicans have a built-in advantage in the battle for control of the House, and have for some time. The reason is deceptively simple. Democrats regularly have more seats that they win extremely easily, say with 70% or more of the vote, than Republicans. What this means is that if, nationwide, voters split their votes between the parties 50-50, other things being equal Republicans would likely win more seats than Democrats—some political scientists suggest the advantage might be about six or seven seats. When you add in incumbency advantages (the GOP currently has a 24 seat edge), Democrats will need a decisive margin in the overall vote to have a chance at the majority.

4. Control of the Senate: It’s really about 2006
The starting point in assessing which party will control the Senate is to look at what happened six years before. A little history is useful: in 1986 Democrats got Senate control back more because Republicans were defending seats won in the GOP landslide year of 1980, seats in some cases won by weak candidates and others by good candidates in states that leaned Democratic, than any other single reason. Similarly, Democrats got the Senate to 50-50 in 2000 by picking up four seats from vulnerable Republicans elected in the GOP revolution of 1994. Well, this year it’s the Democrats who have it tough, having picked up five seats in 2006, including close races in Missouri, Montana, and Virginia. Those states are going to be tough for Democrats to hold in 2012, although Republicans are having more trouble in Missouri than they anticipated. In addition, Democrats are defending open seats in North Dakota and Nebraska, both red states. The playing field in 2012 is tilted toward the GOP, even if a Republican majority is far from a certainty.

5. In 2012 the Democrats are, wait for it, the conservative party
Which party’s platform looks to implement dramatic reforms in the major entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid in particular, which comprise over 20% of the federal budget? Which party vows a radical change in the relationship between the federal government and the citizenry? To abolish federal agencies? To institute across-the-board changes in the tax code? Of course we’re talking about the Republicans. Republicans are, in short, the party of change in the role of government in Americans’ lives. The Democrats, on the other hand, intend to maintain the status quo in terms of the role of government, proposing a “balanced” approach to the debt crisis involving only relatively minor changes to entitlements and the tax code. This is essentially the very definition of conservatism.