Winning by Default

Breaking down the GOP's 2014 election success

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is capitol affairs specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not necessarily represent the views of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)

The real story of the 2014 elections is that broad and shallow segments of the Democratic base saw nothing compelling to either vote for or against. As a result, they stepped aside and let the Republicans win. That is the big-picture reality; accept no substitutes.

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Sure, the election produced plenty of interesting sidelights worth evaluating. But by comparison, these are just ants crawling across the carpet; the low voter turnout is the rhinoceros on the living room sofa.

Gov. Rick Snyder was reelected 51-47 percent and will have ample GOP majorities to work with in the state House and Senate. In the House the Republicans picked up four seats, increasing their majority from the current 59-51 to 63-47. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans increased their majority by one seat, from the current 26-12 to 27-11.

Forget all the stuff about Snyder winning because voters recognized he was turning the economy around. Forget the rhetorical ballyhoo about Michigan voters rewarding the Republican legislators for representing core conservative principles. If, as lawmakers, they had actually represented core conservative principles as much as they claimed as candidates, the past couple of years would have played out very differently than was the case.

While we’re at it, let’s also forget all the potential political mistakes Gov. Snyder and the Republicans made — especially over the past year or so. Let’s forget their messaging miscues.  Above all, forget the idea that Gov. Snyder failed to secure the GOP’s conservative base; it was predicable that most of that base would grumpily shrug, take a deep breath, and vote for him.

The unsecured base that dominated 2014 was comprised of potential Democratic voters who simply weren’t persuaded that they had much at stake in the election. That’s the downside of liberal populism. Empty promises about what government is capable of accomplishing can and do win elections, but after the luster wears off the promises backfire. Ultimately, when the promises go unfulfilled, prove to have been unfulfillable in the first place, or fall short of expectations when fulfilled, the excitement gives way to disillusionment and apathy.

Meanwhile, conservatives who fear and oppose the growth of government-sponsored activism keep right on ticking like a Swiss watch. It’s impossible to be disillusioned or disappointed over promises one never believed in. This year those on the right of the political divide turned out and voted against the direction things have been heading nationally. With the absence of President Barack Obama’s name on the ballot, Democratic candidates at the state level became the only targets available to vote against.

As occurred in states across the nation, Gov. Snyder and the other GOP candidates in Michigan caught a wave that carried them to victory. They were fortunate to be standing on the right sand bar, and as the wave rolled by it lifted them. Thousands of potential Democratic voters who opted to stay home rather than vote caused the displacement that created the wave.

All of this was foreseen long ago. At the beginning of the year, Democratic strategists in Michigan identified apathy among Democrat-leaning voters as their biggest problem. They set upon a plan to change that situation. Lon Johnson, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, pursued an aggressive grassroots effort to boost Democratic turnout.

It was a well-conceived plan, involving thoroughly researched techniques and painstakingly executed. Doubtless, untold hours were spent on it. In the end, however, all of this proved fruitless. Voting, it seems, is a self-motivated action and attempts to artificially induce that motivation apparently just don’t work.

The plan succeeded only in convincing many Democrat voters to vote early, by absentee ballot, rather than waiting for Election Day. In terms of actually increasing Democratic turnout, the plan was a colossal flop.

Then there was the Democrats’ bread and butter issue. From early 2011 through the 2014 election, they falsely argued that Gov. Snyder and the Republicans cut education spending to give corporations a tax break. This political ploy — which has been used in various forms more than a decade — has limited value. It rallies those closely connected to conventional education institutions and forces Republicans to spend a bit of time and money setting the record straight. Beyond that, its effect on election results is minimal. In the end, the ploy’s lack of impact almost always disappoints Michigan’s Democratic political brain trust. That proved to be the case again this year.

The 2014 election could well be remembered as a repudiation of President Obama’s policies. Though the Republicans are doing all of the cheering, it was primarily the Democrats — by declining to vote — that actually forged the instrument of that repudiation.

The Republicans should understand that the electorate’s rejection of the Democrats’ political posture and rhetoric in 2014 might prove to be as temporary as it was after the 2010 elections. Things are likely to be very different in 2016. If the candidate chosen for the top of the GOP’s national ticket is as uninspiring as was the case in 2008 and 2012, the tables could turn and turn quickly.

There are obvious limitations to relying on the hope that the warts and blemishes of one’s opponents will always be perceived as uglier than one’s own. 


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