The so-called great political horse race is finally over: Obama has won reelection. For months now, the mainstream media have cited polls showing that the country is split 50-50, that most of the states are solidly Democratic or Repubican, leaving around ten battleground states that would be decided by a narrow slice of “undecided independents.” Endlessly, media pundits return to this theme, that the US is a narrowly divided country in cultural and political terms. And sure enough, when the election finally happened, the votes in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and elsewhere were very evenly split (51% to 49%, etc).
Do yourself a favour, though: the next time you hear someone repeat the meme that the US electorate is politically split down the middle, with half the country being Democrat and the other half Republican, pinch that person’s arm in an earnest effort to awaken him from his slumber in the pod that evidently feeds him his daily dose of virtual reality. The fact is that the country is not so split; only the likely and actual voters are. Half of the country doesn’t vote and hasn’t voted in large numbers since the nineteenth century, when the average turnout percentage in presidential elections was in the high 70s. In 1904 it dropped to 65%, in 1912 to 59%. In 1920 it fell below 50% for the first time in US history. It stayed mostly in the 40s and 50s until 1952 when it hit 63% and stayed in the 60s until 1972, when it fell back to the 50s where it’s been ever since, falling again to 49% in 1996. (For the numbers, see here.) According to a report from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the voter turnout in the 2012 US presidential election was 57.5% of all eligible voters.
What does this mean, you ask? Well, how can the recent closely-fought elections be taken to represent the state of the electorate when some half of the country consistently doesn’t participate in those elections? Sure, some of those who don’t vote in one election might vote in the next one, so the non-voters don’t comprise a monolithic group; no group so large is homogenous in its outlook or in its reasons or causes, in this case, for not voting. Obviously, the Great Depression and the World Wars impacted the voting. But there is a pattern here, nonetheless: throughout its history the US president has usually garnered roughly half of the popular vote, sometimes as much as 60% but more often just below 50%, and since the beginning of the last century, only around half of the country has been voting at all in those elections. Granted, there’s sometimes been a third party, and the voters were evenly divided a century before voter turnout tended to drop below 60%. Still, for the last hundred years, there’s been no reason to say that the electorate as a whole is evenly divided. This is because the electorate includes those who are eligible to vote but who don’t do so, and for decades this portion of the electorate has been quite sizable. Thus, for a century now, the even splits in the election results haven’t reflected the state of the country.
The polls you keep hearing about, which can be misinterpreted as referring to a split of the American electorate in general, are usually only of so-called “likely voters,” meaning that half of the country isn’t represented in those polls. Obviously, the exit polls likewise reflect only the actual voters, not the half of the country that doesn’t show up. And the election results themselves obviously again represent only half of the country when the other half doesn’t vote. So for decades now, the United States has not been split down the middle, with only a narrow slice of undecided independents separating the Democrats and Republicans. Instead, all of that action takes place on a playing field in a stadium which seats only half of the country, as it were. The other half, which may change its ranks from election to election, but which has remained as sizable for a century, stands outside that stadium altogether.
I’ve asked this before, but I’d still like to know what the odds are that so many recent elections could be so close, given such factors as the electoral college map and the fact that half the country doesn’t vote. Why, that is, should so much complexity and disparity throw up consistently close election results with respect to the popular vote? Another question: why do the two Parties restrict their attention to their base supporters and to a narrow band of ignoramuses, called the undecided voters? Why not reach out to the huge number of people who are the unlikely voters? I suggest that the main reason is that most of those who tend not to vote are cynical about the US political process: they observe that their country is a stealth oligarchy, that the conflict between the democratic Parties is a sham because the Parties have a duopoly, that those with the most money, who can afford full-time lobbyists, have a disproportionate impact on what the politicians actually do, and so on and so forth. Many of those who don’t vote are unreachable by the politicians, because these nonvoters are radical outsiders who have no illusions to mitigate their knowledge of certain basic, natural facts, and so they’re left out of the political narrative.
In any case, we can be confident that the mass media benefit from maintaining the illusion that the country itself is evenly divided. This became painfully clear to me as I ascetically mortified my flesh by watching CNN during last night’s election. (Again, I follow US politics much more than the Canadian variety even though I’m Canadian, because I can’t remain awake long enough to learn the facts of nearly any political issue in Canada.) As early as around 9pm, ET, the analyst John King realized that although the Florida votes were very evenly split, with around 70% of the votes then counted, the remaining counties were Democratic strongholds, and if Romney lost Florida he had virtually no chance of winning the election, especially as other states began to fall Obama’s way. But King stopped short of predicting an Obama victory on that basis, and CNN gave equal time to the results in each of the other states, hailing each as profoundly important breaking news. Then, an hour or so later, when the situation looked even more hopeless for Romney in Florida and thus in the election as a whole, King once again went through the map of counties, making his point that he didn’t see enough available votes for Romney. This time, though, King was more insistent, saying that it would be “impossible” for Romney to win the election at that point without Florida, and Florida looked like a lock for Obama. Immediately thereafter, after turning the floor over to Wolf Blitzer, Blitzer intoned--and I’m paraphrasing--“Every electoral college point matters a great deal.” What Blitzer meant was that CNN’s viewers should nevertheless keep watching the election, including the results in all of the states, even though King was announcing on the basis of the evidence at hand that the election was effectively over long before it was officially called for Obama.
Evidently, then, the media benefit from the myth that the country is so closely divided, because conflict gets higher ratings and sells advertisements. Blitzer’s denial of the reality in Florida, getting his viewers to focus on the horse race in the rest of the country, provides a fine example of how the cultural matrix of illusions is actually maintained. The reality is that half of the country plays no part in the eternal war between Democrats and Republicans, so the country itself is not so evenly split. But the media, at least, profit from propping up the oversimplification.