Who Didn’t Vote in 2010?

One of the stranger threads coming out of this primary election is the delusional idea that the reason Democrats lost in 2010 (and in midterms more generally) is that angry activist progressives refused to vote because they were mad. Barney Frank seems to be the one who set off the meme, but it’s spread to others since then.

I saw the thing show up yet again in my Twitter feed yesterday and it got me annoyed enough to dive into the November election supplements of the 2008 and 2010 Current Population Survey. The survey doesn’t tell you whether people stopped voting in 2010 because they were super-mad progressive activists, but it does tell you how the demographics of the 2008 and 2010 electorate differed, which gives you a better insight into the reality of what’s going on in midterm elections.

According to the CPS, 131 million people voted in the 2008 election while only 96 million voted in the 2010 election. This is a constant reality of midterm elections: huge swaths of the population simply do not vote in them. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if each demographic subgroup saw their participation fall by a proportional amount. But that’s not what happens in midterms and certainly not what happened in 2010. Participation falls in all demographic subgroups in midterms, but it falls more in some than others.

Here is how the composition of the electorate changed between 2008 and 2010 (the figures are the share of the electorate coming from each demographic group):


So who is to “blame?” Younger people, Blacks, Latinos, women, and lesser educated people. Those are the populations that, according to the mythology of this primary election, had the largest shares of people who got so mad that they sat out the election, thereby handing it to the Republicans.

In reality, the midterm drop in participation is not driven by highly-informed, highly-engaged voters that are sitting out as a protest. It’s driven by populations (mostly younger, poorer, and lesser educated) who are lowly-informed and lowly-engaged, and who are thus only marginally attached to the electoral system. This is not a new insight of course, but perhaps one worth repeating given the stupidity unleashed of late on this subject.

The NY Primary Punditry Shows How Yet Again Nobody Cares About Process

The story is supposed to be that Republicans like to suppress the vote and Democrats don’t. I’ve long suspected this story to be false. The real story is that basically everyone likes to suppress the votes of people they don’t like and abhors suppressing the votes of people they do like. This is not to say that everyone would endorse literally any measure to suppress disfavored voters, including explicit laws categorically suppressing entire groups from voting. It’s just to say that most would endorse measures that reduce the voter turnout of their opponents, provided those measures have at least some kind of halfway plausible-sounding justification.

I have long suspected this to be the reality, given that I don’t believe anyone is significantly motivated by abstract procedural fairness. The New York primary provided an excellent natural experiment to test this theory and, at least among the pundit class I follow, the theory has been majorly confirmed. New York has party registration primary rules that are believed to have made it so that many people who wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders couldn’t. If you wanted to create a model for predicting which pundits thought the rules were OK and which didn’t, your best bet would have been to base the model entirely on whether a pundit supports Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Almost to a person, the pro-Hillary pundits thought the rules were OK and the pro-Bernie pundits did not.

Some see this as hypocritical, especially since some of the pundits bending over backwards to justify the New York primary rules also, in other contexts, have been scandalized by similar rules that also suppress votes. But it’s not actually hypocritical. At all times, their views follow the consistent principle that it’s bad when voters they like are suppressed but not so bad when voters they don’t like are suppressed. A supporter of the GOP likes voter ID because of who they think it obstructs from participating. A supporter of Hillary Clinton likes New York’s primary rules because of who they think it obstructs from participating. That’s just how things go.

With that said, it is worth noting how truly stupid most of the arguments on this topic were last night. My favorite stupid argument took the form of saying “that’s not voter suppression, this is” followed by pointing to some example that the interlocutor believes is worse, such as voter ID. This sort of argument was outrageously idiotic for the obvious reason that anyone could take any modern-day example of so-called voter suppression, such as voter ID, and say “that’s not voter suppression, this is” while pointing to many examples in our recent history, including the categorical denial of the vote to women and the nearly categorical denial of the vote to black people during Jim Crow. Indeed, I have seen Republicans do just that when justifying their various voting reform efforts.

But what’s even more moronic about these kinds of arguments is that they fixate on trying to define whether voter suppression or disenfranchisement is or isn’t present, as if it’s a binary thing. In reality you can’t group things into “disenfranchisement” and “not disenfranchisement” because voter restrictions operate on a sliding scale.

Requiring no registration (or having automatic registration) will lead to more participation than requiring same-day registration, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration two weeks before, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration 6 months before, which will lead to more participation than requiring registration only in the month of February in odd-numbered years.

No voter ID will lead to more participation than weak voter ID, which will lead to more participation than moderate voter ID, which will lead to more participation than strong voter ID.

A month of early voting will lead to more participation than 2 weeks of early voting, which will lead to more participation than 3 days of early voting, which will lead to more participation than no days of early voting.

Polls being open for 24 hours on election day will lead to more participation than polls being open 12 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open for 6 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open 3 hours, which will lead to more participation than polls being open for 1 hour between 2pm and 3pm.

A poll station on every block will lead to more participation than a poll station on every other block, which will lead to more participation than a poll station in every square mile, which will lead to more participation than a poll station in every 50 square miles.

And so on and so on. There is no magical moment where the dial clicks from “not suppression” to “suppression.” Rather each particular procedural hurdle drags on voter participation at the margin.

The tricky thing about it is that for any procedural rule that drags on voter participation, there is always some kind of plausible explanation for it. Party registration is plausibly important in order to prevent would-be saboteurs (though there is not much evidence of bad-faith sabotage and committed saboteurs could still sabotage). Voter ID is plausibly important in order to prevent fraud and in fact most countries have voter ID as it is (though there is not much evidence of voter fraud and committed fraudsters could probably create fake IDs to defraud). Early voting is costly and how much early voting you allow is always arbitrary (why 10 days and not 11?). The same is true of how long polls stay open and how many polling stations you use: there are associated costs to using more and cut offs are always somewhat arbitrary.

Naturally, whether you find a plausible enough justification for a procedural rule personally persuasive will turn on whether you think that rule advantages or disadvantages your side. If you think it will help you, then that justification will ring true to your ears. If you think it won’t, then that justification will ring as hollow and pretextual. Which is fine I guess. But just know that the way you feel about the plausible explanations for procedural rules that happen to dampen the participation of voters you don’t like is also how others feel about the plausible explanations for procedural rules that happen to dampen the participation of voters you do like. The neurons are triggering in the same way.

The various pathologies of young women

One thing I’ve enjoyed about the Democratic primary is learning which voter demographics you can pathologize and which you can’t. It turns out that even vaguely gesturing at the idea that Black voters may be choosing incorrectly is definitely oppressive and wrong. After all, that’s the kind of stuff we usually only reserve for the disgusting poor and working class white voters. On the other hand, explicitly saying young women voters are ignorant, complacent, naive, or boy-crazy cool girls is actually fine. Used to, that was the stuff of Reddit, but believe it or not, “bitches be crazy” is an actual genre of election coverage about why young women go for Bernie.

1. Complacent

Debbie Wasserman Schultz had this to say about young women (bolded part is the question):

Do you notice a difference between young women and women our age in their excitement about Hillary Clinton? Is there a generational divide? Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.

Madeleine Albright had a remarkably similar point:

“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Ms. Albright said of the broader fight for women’s equality. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

Albright’s move was especially funny because she had construed her famous quote in exactly the opposite manner in 2008 when she assured people that it was definitely OK to not help Sarah Palin:

Though I am flattered that Governor Palin has chosen to cite me as a source of wisdom, what I said had nothing to do with politics. This is yet another example of McCain and Palin distorting the truth, and all the more reason to remember that this campaign is not about gender, it is about which candidate has an agenda that will improve the lives of all Americans, including women.

2. Cool Girl

Gloria Steinem had this to say:

First of all, women get more radical as we get older because we experience… Men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. It’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men because they are going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking “Where are the boys? The boys are for Bernie.”

Jill Filipovic explained that Steinem was actually right and that the boy-following cool girl phenomenon is very real:

But the actual point remains lost: Not that young women only support Sanders because they want to impress boys, but that, especially among the young, “guy stuff” is cool and enviable, whereas “girl stuff” is lame, uncool, and, well, girly. In this primary, Sanders is the guy stuff. Clinton is the girl stuff.

I happen to think Filipovic’s interpretation of Steinem is wrong, but it’s worth noting that the Cool Girl theory is out there, even if it’s based on a bad reading of Steinem.

3. Sexism Misunderstanders
This is actually what Steinem was getting at in her quote. But it wasn’t just her who said it. The disturbing fact that young women have gone hard for Bernie and even harder than young men for Bernie has given rise to an entire cottage industry of bizarrely half-assed social science about why young women are ignorant of the realities of sexism.

Here is Cronin-Furman and Rapp-Hooper:

Looking around in college or grad school, it’s easy to believe that, in the United States at least, gender equality has largely been achieved. … [But] once women enter the professional world, the rosy picture of progress begins to dull. Only 15 percent of law firms’ equity partners are female. Women make up only 3 percent of hedge fund managers and 1.5 percent of CEOs of large corporations. And women only account for 37.5 percent of tenured faculty in American universities. … And at the same time that women are getting serious about their careers, many are also thinking about starting families.

These dynamics can be a rude awakening for young women who have excelled all their lives, often at institutions that have invested resources, time, and attention into recruiting promising women. They’re experiencing something we call “late-breaking sexism.” It’s the sudden realization that you don’t have the same opportunities as a man, that you will struggle to have both a family and a career, that your participation in the public sphere will always be caveated by your gender.

Since a ton of people in the country are CEOs, lawyers, hedge fund workers, and professors, this analysis definitely checks out and helps to describe an enormous swath of the US female population.

The same point was made by Poloni-Staudinger, Strachan, and Schaffner at the Washington Post. In their piece, they point to this graph to support their age-based theories:


Then they provocatively ask:

Can this pattern help explain why younger women are less likely to support Clinton? Is it because younger women are less likely to report negative consequences of gender discrimination and motherhood?

Such excellent questions! But I noticed one tiny problem. The 50+ age group had the second-lowest reporting of sexism and lowest reporting of child care issues. This theory would then predict that they’d go for Bernie, but in fact they are the strongest contingent for Hillary. Womp womp.

The Sexism Misunderstander arguments tend to get the best pick up from prominent older female pundits. This article was tweeted out by Neera Tanden of CAP and Joan Walsh of the Nation, both of whom are best known for supporting the gutting of cash assistance to poor women with children (in their younger more conservative days before they got old and therefore woke!).

4. Broadly Stupid About the Welfare State
Finally, we have Hillary Clinton herself chiming in:

To her credit, Clinton’s take is presumably generalizable to all young people, not just young women. Though her depiction of social democratic welfare state politics as akin to a fine print swindle that stupid people get duped into is a tad bit unhelpful!

5. Lifecycle Arguments Are Garbage
What’s ultimately so funny about all these half-assed arguments is that they fly in the face of what we know about how political differences work across ages. These authors all explicitly or implicitly endorse the idea that people’s politics change as they age and that this accounts for the reason why, at any given moment in time, the younger people are different from the older people. Let’s call this the Lifecycle Theory.

But in actual real-life political science, the reason politics differs across ages is because different generations have different politics that they form when they are young and carry across their entire lives. This is called Generational Imprinting:

There’s reason to believe they will. Jacobson’s research is built around a well-known phenomenon in political science known as “generational imprinting” that’s been documented since the 1950s.

It’s a simple idea: Essentially, young people decide their political identities when they’re “coming of political age” — or when they first really begin paying attention to what’s going on in politics.

“Partisan identities … are adopted early in adulthood, stabilize quickly, and thereafter become highly resistant to more than transient change,” Jacobson writes in a summary of the research. “Political events and personalities have their most lasting influence during the stage in life when partisan identities are being formed.”

And you can see this imprinting pretty clearly by following a generation’s partisan self-identity as they age and noticing that it doesn’t actually change much:


The Traditionalists were the most conservative 20 years ago and are still the most conservative now. The Baby Boomers were the next most conservative 20 years ago and are still the next most conservative now. The Millennial generation started out in youth as the most liberal and remain that way.

So the entire premise of all of this half-assed theorizing is completely bankrupt. The reason older and younger people have different politics is not generally because politics change as people age, but rather because different generations have different politics that they carry with them from young adulthood to the grave.

6. Why Would Any of These Theories Lead to Supporting Hillary?
As a final note, it’s also worth pointing out that none of these various theories ever explain why young women, once freed from whatever pathologies they have, would necessarily support Hillary. It just seems to be assumed that because the super-woke grannies support Hillary that this is the default position you would have if you weren’t otherwise fucked up in the head.

But that’s not really true. Bernie supports pay equity just as Hillary does. Bernie supports abortion rights to an even greater extent than Hillary does. The robust welfare statism advocated by Bernie is, as Rebecca Traister argues in her latest book, an enormous boon for women in general. Women get more out of public healthcare as they use more healthcare than men. Women get more out of student benefits because they go to college more than men. Women get more out of Social Security because they live longer than men. Women get more out of leave and child care benefits. And on and on. Basically every welfare benefit that’s ever been conceived of is more helpful for women than men, but Hillary has run a campaign that is aggressively against this welfare statism as being dishonest, pie-in-the-sky, and not able to solve racism and cissexism and such (see quote above for an example).

It’s not at all clear that becoming old enough to escape all the young woman pathologies would lead you to a pro-Hillary conclusion. The link between those two is somehow never explained, which is rather curious in its own right.

Is Elias Isquith Literate?

Salon blogger Elias Isquith had a truly bizarre interpretation of a New Republic piece written by Elizabeth Bruenig.


The reason why Isquith described the piece this way is pretty obvious. He is absolutely desperate to find someone making that argument so that he can then condemn it. When you are on the hunt for an argument you want to cry about, you sometimes read it into pieces that don’t contain it. That’s what happened here.

The actual content of Elizabeth’s piece was pretty banal. The argument goes like this:

  1. The majority of young voters favor Bernie.
  2. Crucially, though the majority of young Black voters didn’t favor Bernie in South Carolina, a big chunk (43%) did, and this was a significant break from the overall Black voting trend.
  3. The majority of independent voters favor Bernie.
  4. Therefore, the future for Bernie-style social democracy lies in young voters and independents and Bernie should focus on them.

There is absolutely nothing in the piece about giving up on Black people and focusing on young whites. Rather, the piece says to focus on all young people, including young Black people, which Elizabeth specifically identified as breaking away from the overall Black voter trend and breaking towards Bernie (“Notably, though Sanders did not win a majority of young black voters, he won more of their support than that of their older counterparts.”). The idea here is that if Bernie can win over young people of all stripes to social democracy, then given that political attitudes are pretty sticky over time, that will mean social democrats have a real chance in the near future as old people die and young people replace them. The only people the piece (implicitly) says to ignore are older people who basically universally go for Hillary and are not the future.

The idea of winning over young voters of all stripes is completely sensible and is, in fact, what the Sanders campaign is already trying to do. This is why its Black outreach has focused so heavily on young Black people, e.g. through its HBCU college tour and selection of campaign surrogates. And this is presumably why his support among young people of all types has shot up the most over time. According to Reuters rolling poll, Blacks under the age of 35 have begun to break towards Sanders in the last couple of months nationally, with Sanders even pulling ahead (within the margin of error) in February:


Isquith’s read of this piece is about as mendacious as they come. I expect better from Salon bloggers.

Shouldn’t Older Men Be Going For Bernie?

The most disgusting thing going on in the media right now is bourgeois women theorizing about the age gap in female support for Clinton by talking about the experiences of a narrow slice of upper class women. I know only upper class people consume this kind of prestige media, but it would be nice if for once we at least pretended that the bottom 80% of society exists. (See, e.g., Filipovic in the NYT and Cronin-Furman & Rapp-Hooper in Vox).

These takes can be dismissed entirely on their face because you cannot theorize about an enormous population of people by generalizing from the elite members of that population. They also suffer from an even bigger problem: the support pattern of men.

Recall, it was Gloria Steinem’s comment that young women supported Hillary because they were chasing boys that set off this latest parade of takes. In the course of her odd explanation, she provided the first articulation of the age-based gender argument:

Not to over-generalize, but … men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, women get more radical because they lose power as they age.

None of the takes have paid much attention to the bolded part of her statement. But it’s a critical element of her model of political beliefs across the lifecycle. The same lifecycle power dynamics that cause women to become more radical is what is supposed to cause men to become less radical.

Steinem claims that male and female dynamics across the lifecycle are the opposite of one another. Women lose power as they age and so they get more radical and that is what is causing older women to support the more radical (lol) candidate Hillary Clinton. Conversely, men gain power as they age and so they get less radical. Steinem doesn’t pursue the end conclusion of this observation, but it should mean that older men support the less radical (lol) candidate Bernie Sanders? Right?

Under this theory of Hillary Clinton’s age divide, you would expect the following gender+age breakdown.

Young Old
Female Conservative Radical
Male Radical Conservative

And then this breakdown (bizarrely) should generate the following candidate preference breakdown in the Democratic primary:

Young Old
Female Bernie Hillary
Male Hillary Bernie

But, as we all should know by now, the age divides across the genders are not mirror images of one another. Young men and young women support Bernie by big margins while old men and old women support Hillary by big margins.

So how can this possibly be? If political preferences vary across the lifecycle in opposite directions for men and women — men get more conservative, women less conservative — then why do candidate preferences vary across the lifecycle in identical directions for men and women (youngs for Bernie, olds for Hillary)? Such a mystery!

Psychoanalytically speaking, the reason we are getting these bizarre gender lifecycle takes that are totally inconsistent with the data is that older liberal take makers are insecure about the fact that they are voting for the more conservative candidate. It betrays their self-identity as “very liberal” and so some are really pulling out all the stops to calm their dissonance. I’ve made this point once before, but it’s worth reiterating again.