Usually, the outcome of a presidential election "depends on the turnout of the Democrats." So says Nelson Polsby of the University of California-Berkeley. For once, I agree with a political scientist. I take Polsby to mean "Democrats" as a term of art for "most people." By "Democrats" he means people with hourly jobs, high-school dropouts, high-school grads, single moms, single dads—anyone at or below the median household income.
But let's narrow "Democrats" to people way down the income ladder, whose voting rate is usually less than 40 percent. Waitresses. Claims adjusters. College kids with loans. If the turnout among these people hits 50 percent, the Republicans are in trouble. Get it up to 60 percent, and Bush won't even come close.
I know that the country's turned to the right. But we'd still have the New Deal if voters were turning out at New Deal-type rates. (Between 1936 and 1968, voter turnout in presidential elections fell below 56 percent just once. Since 1968, it has never exceeded 56 percent.) So how can Democrats get the turnout of all eligibles up to 65 percent?
There are two ways: The Schwarzenegger model and the Cotton Mather model.
Let's start with the Schwarzenegger model: Pander to people. There's much to learn from the California recall election. Stupid as it was, people did vote. The turnout of registered voters was 61 percent. (This was more than 10 percent higher than normal in California.) And this was a state election held not just in an off year, but an off month.
So why was it so high? I have two hunches. First, people came because the ballot was simple. Yes, there were more than 50 candidates, but voters had to mark only two boxes. Recall Gray Davis? Yes or no. Who to put in? Vote for one. In most elections in my state, Illinois, people have to fill in 50 boxes. It has become like taking a pop quiz. I go into the voting booth and think, "I've not been doing the reading; I don't know who these people are." I leave feeling a little soiled. And if I think that, and I'm a lawyer who neurotically reads four newspapers a day, how does a normal non-lawyer feel? In the California recall—for maybe the first time in years—everybody went in there and knew, "I'm going to pass."
The second reason I think people showed up is that even though the whole election may have been ridiculous and unnecessary, it was a lot of fun. It wasn't that Arnold was from Hollywood; lots of stars run for office. It was that the election was from Hollywood. It wasn't about political parties. It was a political party.
It was like the way elections used to be in the days before they were pop quizzes—back in the late 1800s, when the turnout (albeit only among white men) in the North and Midwest reached levels of 80 percent or more. Why did all those men out there on the farms leave their wives, saddle up, and ride for miles? To party!
Election Day was like Mardi Gras. For some, it was a three-day drunk. (Maybe not in New England, but at least in Illinois.) Some didn't sober up for another two years, until it was time to saddle up and go off to vote again.
So what are the lessons from California?