Coattails Still Count

November 23, 2011 - 10:04 AM

There’s a theme being played out on some radio talk shows: Just nominate any minimally acceptable candidate for president, so long as he (or she) is not scary, and that candidate will cruise to victory, pulling in a strong House and Senate majorities. The formidable Charles Krauthammer has been offering a variant of this notion. He says voter intensity doesn’t count. Every vote is equal in the voting booth.

As well intentioned as these intelligent callers and commentators are, they are wrong. Voter intensity is everything. It determines who shows up at those voting booths.

Krauthammer and others perceived a strong conservative tide that swept away thousands of liberals in the 2010 elections. The country is moving conservative, they say.

The country is more conservative than liberal, to be sure. All polls show that about twice as many Americans count themselves conservative as liberal. But that does not assure that the GOP wins the next election.

Turnout is everything. One year ago, 42% of eligible voters cast ballots in the off-year elections. That is the highest turnout for an off-year election since 1966. That was very good. And those voters handed victories to hundreds of pro-life, pro-family candidates, for which we thank God.

President Obama was elected in 2008 when 62% of eligible voters turned out. That was the strongest turnout since 1960. (And, given the fact that 18-year olds could not vote in 1960, the last presidential election may be the greatest turnout of the modern era.)

The difference between the 2008 and 2010 electorates is a huge one—20%. This is where voter intensity comes in. If people are not excited about this election, all bets are off.

And excitement must come from enthusiasm for the head of the ticket. Vice presidential candidates don’t excite voters. Tippecanoe and Tyler, too were elected, but it was William Henry Harrison who won the votes.

The late Geraldine Ferraro was a most interesting addition to the 1984 ticket, but she was unable to gain for Fritz Mondale any of the groups she was supposed to appeal to. Reagan beat Mondale-Ferraro among women, Catholics, Italian-Americans, New Yorkers, and even voters in Geraldine’s own Queens congressional district.

A story from my New York political days will illustrate. Manny and Vinnie were politicians in the city in the tumultuous year of 1932. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was running against the hapless Herbert Hoover. Even without public opinion polls—then in their infancy—everyone expected FDR to crush President Hoover.

Manny the Zone Leader in Brooklyn was fending off Vinnie’s complaints:

“Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. He’s gettin’ all the money. We all know he’s gonna win. If this election goes on another two weeks, Roosevelt will carry Canada! I need some money for my race for Alderman!”

Manny the Zone Leader replied: “Vinnie, relax. Go down to Sout’ Ferry and watch the ferry boat come in. Two hund’erd yards out, she revoises her propellers and comes into the ferry slip nice and slow. And when she does, she brings in all that gobbage from the bottom of the bay wit’ her. Vinnie, Franklin D. Roosevelt is YOUR ferry boat!”

Ronald Reagan carried in thousands of federal, state and local candidates with him in 1980. George W. Bush was able to bring in many, especially in Ohio in 2004, where marriage was on the ballot. Tens of thousands more voters showed up for that race, including the Amish who had never voted before.

President Obama is carefully working to excite his strongest supporters—liberals, unions, environmentalists, gays, pro-choice activists, minorities, and women. His task is made harder with unions, minorities, and women because they have been hard hit by his terrible economic policies. Still, union leaders will sing his praises.

President Harry Truman was thought to be a sure loser in 1948. He had defections from his Democratic party. Strom Thurmond ran as a “Dixiecrat,” promising to maintain racial segregation. Former Vice President Henry Wallace ran on the far left as a Progressive. His campaign promised to make nice with the Soviets and was run by Communists.

The Republican nominee that year was calm, dignified, intelligent, and articulate. He had the united support of the business community. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was described by Theodore Roosevelt’s tart-tongued daughter Alice as “the little man on the wedding cake.”

Still, Dewey was such a prohibitive favorite that the Gallup organization stopped polling in early October. Calm and steady, Dewey acted as if he was already president.

The Chicago Tribune was so confident of the result that they published an early edition with the headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” History books show an ebullient Harry brandishing that newspaper.

Turnout is everything. And nothing generates a big turnout like excitement for the top of the ticket. Anyone who tells you otherwise needs to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry.