GEORGE WILL: Politics by the numbers

GEORGE WILL

GEORGE WILL

Two years from today, Iowa – dark, brooding, enigmatic Iowa – will be enjoying its quadrennial moment as the epicenter of the universe. And in 10 months, voters will vent their spleens – if they still are as splenetic as they now claim to be – in congressional elections. Some numbers define the political landscape.

In an October poll, 60 percent favored voting out of office every congressional incumbent. The poll was taken just 11 months after voters re-elected 90 percent of House and 91 percent of Senate incumbents. Democrats are more likely to lose control of the Senate than gain control of the House. Since the mid-19th-century emergence of the current two-party competition, no party holding the presidency has ever won control of the House in any midterm election.

Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics note that since the Civil War, the average turnout in presidential elections has been 63 percent and in midterms 48 percent. The decline comes mostly from the party holding the presidency, and analyst Charlie Cook says three crucial components of Obama’s coalition – unmarried women, minorities (more than 40 percent of Obama’s 2012 vote) and young people – are especially prone to skipping midterms. In the seven midterms since 1984, voters under 30 averaged 13 percent of the midterm vote, down from 19 percent during presidential years.

In 2012, Obama became the first president since Ronald Reagan to win two popular-vote majorities, but Obama got 3.6 million fewer votes than in 2008, a 5 percent decline. (The last re-elected president, George W. Bush, got 11.6 million more votes in 2004 than in 2000.) Except for a small gain among those 30-39, Obama lost ground among every age cohort. And in 2012, Republicans improved the share of votes they got in 2008 from men (in 2012 Obama became the first person to win a presidential election while losing the male vote by seven points), whites, young voters and Jews. And independents: John McCain lost them 44-52 but Romney won them 50-45. And by September 2013, independents were leaning Republican by 18 points, above even the 14-point advantage Republicans had in 2010.

In three of the most intensely contested states in 2012, Florida, Virginia and Ohio, Obama’s victory margins averaged 2.6 points. But even if he had lost all three he would have still won with 272 electoral votes. Analyst Jeffrey Bell calculates this:

“Of the 12 ‘battleground’ states, Obama won 11 – eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin – that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9 – Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes.”

These numbers suggest that the great political prizes can be won by either party. There will be more numbers to contemplate by the time the 1 percent of Americans who live in Iowa are heard from.

Contact George Will at georgewill@washpost.com.