Too Many Conclusions from Too Little Data

by Dave Schuler on March 19, 2014

I think that the analysts who are drawing conclusions from yesterday’s Illinois primary elections are drawing a pound of conclusions from an ounce of data. Writing at Washington Post Sean Sullivan makes comments about the governor’s race, the conundrum that will face organized labor in the fall, the absence of backlash against the Republican legislators who voted for same-sex marriage, and the yawn in House races in Illinois. Nowhere does he mention the single, critical, inescapable fact of yesterday’s primaries here: the turnout was incredibly low. It was under 10% in the city of Chicago.

I could try to explain the low turnout away any number of ways. It was a primary. It was a mid-term. In the prior three mid-term primaries turnout was 27.3% in 2010, 32.1% in 2006, and 39.8% in 2002. Whatever the reason that’s terribly, depressingly low.

I also think that it’s possible that the number of registered voters has become completely disassociated from the number of people who can be expected to vote in a primary mid-term election.

Many people mocked North Korea’s 100% vote in favor of Kim Jong-Un not long ago. In most cases Chicago’s primaries weren’t elections but affirmations. Nearly all incumbent officeholders ran unopposed. First time officeholder (second time candidate) Will Guzzardi won his race against Maria “Toni” Berrios, daughter of Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joseph Berrios, for the seat in the 39th state house legislative district. Guzzardi a 26 year old Ivy-educated former journalist ran on a progressive platform with the support of organized labor.

But the turnout was low there, too. Rather than drawing conclusions about an anti-incumbent sentiment, an anti-machine sentiment, or the rise in progressives in Chicago politics, the only conclusion that’s really supported by the evidence is that when the turnout is low anything can happen.

I’m exhausted today. I rose at 1:00am yesterday morning (courtesy of an elderly dog with dementia), arrived at the polling place where I had my election judge assignment, and returned home around 9:00pm. Voters expressed plenty of anti-incumbent sentiment but those were only the most disaffected voters.

Why the low turnout? I mentioned some of the reasons above but IMO there are a couple of other reasons worth mentioning. It might be that the torrent of negative ads have finally discouraged voters to the point where they don’t even bother to turn out for elections. The prevailing wisdom is that negative ads don’t suppress turnout but they do produce a sense of futility.

That’s the real message, the real conclusion. In Chicago the voters think that voting is futile.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw March 19, 2014 at 9:15 am

The turnout in my downstate county was 23.16%, and of those 82.17% picked-up a Republican ballot. I don’t think that means the county is 82.17% R, but that people were more interested in the Republican races. A Democrat friend voted for Dillard in case Quinn loses in the general.

Dave Schuler March 19, 2014 at 9:19 am

How many people cross party lines to vote strategically is an open question. At least in the precinct where I worked although I think that most of those who asked for a Republican ballot were actually Democrats who became Republicans for a day I don’t think most were voting strategically.

Maybe my opinion is too much colored by the lifelong Democrat, voting Republican for the first time, saying to me “We’ve got to get rid of Quinn.”

Dave Schuler March 19, 2014 at 9:23 am

Perhaps I should give a definition or, at least an example:

voting for the person you want to be governor—not strategic
voting for the person you think will be easiest to defeat in the general election—strategic

PD Shaw March 19, 2014 at 9:38 am

I think my friend voted for Dillard as his second favorite option for governor, given his vote for Quinn was relatively meaningless. I think a lot of state workers also probably voted for Dillard because Rauner was their least favorite. These strike me as non-strategic. I think its hard to mount a strategic manipulation of the opposing party’s primary — knowledge of its existence will be used by the stronger candidate to its advantage.

Tim March 19, 2014 at 9:50 am

Yesterday was the first time I have been eligible to vote but didn’t. It wasn’t by design, but it also wasn’t a priority. (I had intended to vote in the evening, but a sick pup intervened).

I frankly didn’t care that much; I thought about strategic voting, and a non-strategic vote for the other party (as in “if it’s going to be someone from that party, I’d really prefer this guy…”).

The Democratic primary seemed thoroughly uninteresting in my area; if there was a time and place for anti-incumbent sentiment, it was before the ballots were made, apparently.

PD Shaw March 19, 2014 at 9:53 am

The WaPo piece wasn’t that good.

1. I think there are more important factorts about the tightening of the Rauner race. One, Brady who previously won this primary solely on the idea of being the only downstate candidate, was written-off as a loser by downstate. Two, Rutherford, the only candidate who has won a state-wide election, imploded in a February surprise sex scandal. This allowed Dillard with some union money to consolidate most of the anti-Rauner vote, but it wasn’t enough.

2. The labor issue should be described as a government union labor issue; I don’t think Quinn has problems with the traditional unions.

3. Suburban Republicans are not punished for supporting gay marriage — no surprise here. There might be some Democrats vulnerable in the Fall, however.

4. That U.S. House incumbents won their primaries, is too boring to think about.

... March 19, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Voting is futile, especially on the federal level. There will be differences in emphasis, but the two sides basically agree with each other for the most part.

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