The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are desperate to goose turnout in November

Supporters of President Trump at a campaign-style rally in Billings, Mont., on Sept. 6. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Americans don’t vote in midterm elections; turnout in 2014 was about 37 percent, in 2010 it was about 42 percent, and in 2006 it was 41 percent. But to the parties, what matters isn’t how many people get to the polls, it’s whether their supporters get to the polls and the other party’s do not.

Right now, Republicans are beginning to worry that not only are Democratic voters unusually motivated, but that Republican voters are looking at the elections happening in seven weeks and saying “whatever.”

The GOP starts off at a disadvantage, because this is the midterm election of a first-term presidency, when the opposition almost always does well. That’s because a president gives his opponents lots to be angry about, and anger may be the most powerful motivator in politics. Furthermore, President Trump makes Democrats particularly angry with his combination of retrograde policy initiatives and personal loathsomeness. That anger has spurred unprecedented mobilization and activism on the left, which is why most analysts predict Democrats will take back the majority in the House.

But the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to Republican voters. Axios reports that recent Republican National Committee polling showed “57% of strong Trump supporters believe it’s unlikely Democrats win the House,” and over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Republican focus groups have identified a dangerous apathy among the party’s voters about the midterms:

Conservative-leaning voters in the study routinely dismissed the possibility of a Democratic wave election, with some describing the prospect as “fake news,” said an official familiar with the research, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the data was not intended to be disclosed. Breaking that attitude of complacency is now the Republicans’ top priority, far more than wooing moderates with gentler messaging about economic growth.

We’ve seen this problem before: Ensconced in the comforting conservative information bubble, Republicans refuse to believe any information that contradicts what they’d like to be true. In 2012, for instance, Mitt Romney himself was shocked to lose, because despite large numbers of polls showing him behind, Romney and his team just couldn’t accept that the public might reelect President Barack Obama. When, every day, Trump says this is the greatest economy in history, and that “the poll numbers are through the roof,” and Fox News says it over and over, why should Republican voters believe otherwise?

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

But the real problem Republicans face isn’t that their voters will be demobilized. It’s that they’ll be mobilized well enough — but not well enough for this year.

That is what we’ve seen in a lot of primaries and special elections that have occurred since Trump took office: Republican turnout was up from previous elections, but Democratic turnout was up even more. According to one study, Republican turnout was up 23 percent over 2014 — which you’ll recall was a wave year for the GOP — but Democratic turnout was up 78 percent.

So Republicans need to find something to tell their voters to get them to the polls, and “how’d ya like them tax cuts?” is obviously not cutting it. They have to find a message that will get their voters fired up.

As Axios also reports, Republicans have found that claiming Democrats are coming to take away Medicare tests well, particularly among older Republican voters.

Yes, it’s ironic that the party that actually wants to privatize Medicare is going to tell seniors that the threat to Medicare comes from Democrats. But this is an old playbook for the GOP; the only difference this time is that it’s in the context of Democratic proposals for “Medicare for all.” The argument goes that if Democrats actually provide universal health coverage, it will mean taking away Medicare from seniors. Or as Trump so eloquently put it, “they want to raid Medicare to pay for socialism.”

That message may be stupid, but will it work? There are reasons to think not — most importantly that the older voters most likely to be persuaded by it are already the ones most likely to vote. Voting propensity rises with age (until you get to about 75, after which there’s a drop-off, presumably because of health and mobility issues). Your average septuagenarian Fox News viewer might react well to a scare message about Medicare, but he or she was probably going to vote anyway. What Republicans really need is not just for their regular voters to turn out, but to bring in voters that don’t usually vote in midterm elections.

Such as, for instance, those working-class white voters who came out for Trump in 2016, in no small part as a statement of white identity. Are they going to get pushed to the polls in huge numbers by a “they’re coming for your Medicare” message when Trump isn’t on the ballot?

I guess it’s possible, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, if nothing else, Democrats have more room to grow their midterm turnout, because so many of their constituencies, namely young people and minorities, usually don’t vote in midterms at a rate comparable to many Republican constituencies. If Democrats can get them angry and motivated — and so far they have — they can swamp the Republicans’ efforts.

And that may be a problem that isn’t in Republicans’ power to solve.