The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Obama misunderstands 2014 turnout

"I think we had a great record for members of Congress to run on," President Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview airing Monday, "and I don't think we — myself and the Democratic Party — made as good of a case as we should have. And, you know, as a consequence, we had really low voter turnout, and the results were bad."

This is a pretty common argument as to what went wrong for the president's party last month: More Republicans came out to vote because Democrats didn't see any need to.

But the problem of turnout extends beyond Democrats.

The 2014 election saw the lowest midterm turnout since 2002, according to vote totals compiled by the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman. As a function of the total population of the country, it was the second-lowest percentage since 1942. (The lowest was 1998.)

Another way of looking at it is to consider the vote split by party. In 2014, Democrats got fewer votes in House races than in any year since 2002. But Republicans also saw a big drop-off from 2010 (and the presidential-election-boosted years of 2008 and 2012).

In four of the last seven House election cycles, Republicans have received more votes than Democrats (and more seats in five of the seven). Three of those four were in lower-turnout midterms. Democrats got more votes in one midterm this century: 2006, when Republican turnout was lower. But even in that year, more people came out to vote in House races, in terms of raw numbers, than in 2014.

This year's low turnout wasn't just because Democrats didn't have a strong message. Republicans didn't appear to have a very strong get-to-the-polls message either.

Put another way: in a two-party political system, all success -- and failure -- is relative.