One of the thorniest challenges for Democrats in the post-Reagan era — following the exodus of many white, working class voters to the GOP — has been the lack of voting zeal within the remaining “progressive coalition” that defines the left.
The vast majority of polls show that if Democratic-leaning groups (minorities, young people, urban liberals, etc.) voted with the same intensity as Republican-leaning groups (white, older, rural conservatives), there would be little contest in American presidential elections.
Democrats would win hands-down.
But the simple truth is that the left-of-center “silent majority” has proved nearly impossible to harness with any consistency.
Barack Obama pulled it off in 2008, stitching a patchwork of groups that were anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-corporate and anti-Washington. In doing so, he defeated a much more seasoned, well-known Republican war hero, John McCain, by nearly 10 million votes.
But by 2010, the left-of-center coalition had fallen back into somnolence and disarray. The tea party shouldered its way into the national consciousness.
It was a stunning, and completely typical triumph: A much smaller group of conservative Americans organized more effectively and more persistently, shifting the national agenda, and swinging control of the House in dramatic fashion.
2012, according to most pundits’ predictions, won’t be a wave year like 2008 or 2010. But it doesn’t need to be either of those things for conservatives to fare well against Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama.
In a “normal” year, Republican-leaning voters will typically outperform their Democratic-leaning counterparts and there are signs that this is happening.
According to a Gallup poll in July, Democratic zeal in 2012 is about on par with Republican enthusiasm in 2008. In other words, down more than twenty points over the last four years. Republican enthusiasm, meanwhile, is 16 points higher than in 2008.
Those trends are reflected in much of the progressive movement’s impatient rhetoric about Obama.
One day last week Huffingtonpost — a zeitgeist journal for left of center voters – was headlined with an article suggesting that the “hope” of Barack Obama’s presidency has been “killed,” with Obama himself described as a “DC establishment man.”
The front page of the popular website included a lengthy opinion article by liberal actor John Cusack suggesting that Obama “gutted” the US Constitution.
I hear this kind of language frequently from my more progressive acquaintances, many of whom view Obama’s first term as a “failure” — though for profoundly different reasons than Mitt Romney or Rush Limbaugh.
Some still plan to vote grudgingly for the Democrat, because they dislike the Republican ticket even more. But I suspect that many progressive voters will sit this election out, particularly students, African American and Hispanics, and far-left liberals.
Team Obama hopes to counter apathy and disarray on the left with a state-of-the-art get out the vote organization, one that merges traditional neighborhood activism with new- and social-media pushes.
But it’s an open question whether Twitter and Facebook can revive enough of the 2008 magic to lift Barack Obama to a second term?
All of which brings us to this week’s Democratic convention in Charlotte.
We already know that many union groups are in a grump, angry that Obama chose to hold the rally in North Carolina, a state that has weak pro-union laws. That doesn’t bode well, but it may be typical in a left-in-a-muddle sort of year.
Against headwinds like that, Obama will try to rally his base, urging the alphabet soup of factions to put aside short-term disappointments and irritations to embrace again some version of the broad, hopeful vision that he offered four years ago.
Republican rhetoric aside, the president has a fair amount of red meat to offer liberals.
Obama ended the war in Iraq, pushed through the closest thing to universal healthcare that America has ever seen, ended segregation against gay people in the military, took a political thrashing for subsidizing alternative energy technologies, and helped to save the US automobile industry that unions rely upon — all while dealing with the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
He also managed to pull off four years as the first black man in the White House in our nation’s history. It’s a feat that modern pundits have largely downplayed or ignored, but one which I suspect historians will spill a lot of ink over.
Still, liberals are a famously stubborn, impatient crowd and I’m not sure that’s enough. I suspect that when the votes are counted in November, a big chunk of America’s silent majority will remain, well, silent.
In these final weeks of the campaign, left-of-center voters will wring their hands over voter suppression by Republicans. But I suspect that far, far more Democratic voters will be lost to liberal apathy than to conservative chicanery.