Ignoring who votes when and why

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the results of yesterday’s election are being interpreted in a variety of ways and that there’s a fair amount of posturing over the significance of off-year election results. But hardly any notice is being given to a referendum victory repealing a right to same sex marriage in Maine, while lots of people are fascinated by a Republican failure in an election which became a clash between conservative and “moderate” factions in New York’s 23rd District for an apparently not so “safe seat” in the House of Representatives vacated when President Obama appointed Republican John McHugh as Army Secretary.

Many are also taking notice of Democrat losses in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. One thing that appears clear here is that voters under age 30 didn’t show up in the proportion they had for the presidential election last year. That’s buried pretty deep in Dan Balz’s article but E. J. Dionne figures it prominently, noting that “Democrats are more dependent on young voters than ever before.”

Same sex marriage advocates are also dependent upon younger voters. It’s hard to expect under-30s (or many other people, for that matter) to get terribly excited about off-year elections. That’s why I think the Maine results might be more significant than these other races; if the turnout in the under-30 age group was subpar, the outcome might also augur poorly for another attempt to repeal the same-sex marriage ban in California in 2010, where a rift has opened up between smaller grassroots groups who are unwilling to wait and the largest advocacy group, Equality California, over delaying to campaign to 2012. So while Ruth Marcus warns against reading much (see the Center for American Progress for more) into these results, all these groups and President Obama as well would be mistaken to overlook who votes for what reasons and when they do so.

Waiting til 2012 means tying a campaign’s fortunes to a presidential campaign. If multiple campaigns are seeking to energize a particular demographic, the synergy should benefit both. That wasn’t enough to defeat California’s Proposition 8 in 2008. I haven’t found a breakdown by age of Maine voter turnout, but the results might well show it doesn’t work to ignore demographics either. And this is where Progressive voters’ disappointments might prove costly. Obama will need to earn the Progressive vote in 2012 that provided a margin of victory in 2008; right-wing bleating notwithstanding, he hasn’t been doing that.

But while Progressives may celebrate a fission between “moderates” and conservatives among Republicans, they have long justified support for Democrats on the ill-founded assumption that Democrats are better than Republicans. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton–both leading contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008–have now convincingly demonstrated the futility of that assumption.

Electoral prospects are already dim for same sex marriage rights advocates. Writing for the Des Moines Register, Reid Forgrave points out that they have lost contests in 31 of 31 states.

It isn’t just gays whose human rights are on the line. Mine (along with those of all the unemployed and underemployed) are. Guantanamo detainee‘s are. With the Obama administration’s perpetuation of post-9/11 security provisions, nearly everyone’s are.

So rather than focusing on the minutae of off-year electoral results, we ought to be asking whose rights the U.S. political system is capable of guaranteeing. Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, argues that “Never before has a majority voted on a minority’s right. It’s time for that to end.” But what we’re seeing is a system which performs just as James Madison intended in Federalist No. 10, protecting the minority rights not of any disadvantaged or stigmatized group, but of white, wealthy males.

That makes these results much more important than any of these pundits suggest.

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