All Democrats who live where I live expect our candidates to lose each and every election. That’s just the way it is here in ruralish Southwest Missouri. This year, of course, was no exception. Ozark Billy got almost 64% of the vote against Jim Evans, the valiant Democrat who received only 29%.
Most of Missouri’s eight U.S. House districts produce pretty lopsided election results, six of them going for Republicans and only two for Democrats. That’s the way the Republican-dominated legislature designed these districts. They are heavily partisan with predictable results.
But there is a fact that stuns the soul of every democracy-loving Missourian, or at least it should. Democrats got 41.8% of all votes cast in Missouri’s eight U.S. House races in 2012, when turnout was 65.7%, yet it was only possible for them to end up with 25% of the seats, which were essentially capped at two. Republicans got 54.6% of all votes in House races across the state in 2012 but ended up with 75% of the seats. Some of us don’t think that is very democratic, but that’s the way it is.
This year turnout in Missouri was a paltry 35.2%. Think about that. A little more than half of the registered voters in this state who voted in the presidential election two years ago bothered to vote in this one. That amounts to 608,119 fewer Democrats and 627,051 fewer Republicans who didn’t vote, all things being equal. Those numbers look like they might be an advantage for Democrats, since more Republicans bugged out this year than Democrats. But it is a matter of percentages.
In 2012, as I mentioned, Democrats got 41.8% of House votes and Republicans got 54.6%. But in 2014, with the dropout of voters, Democrats only got 35.9% of House votes and Republicans got 58.8%. The lesson: voter apathy hurts Democrats in states like Missouri much more than it hurts Republicans. (Another lesson is that even just getting 35.9% of House votes would, if this were a perfectly tuned democracy, get Democrats an additional House seat, but that’s another matter.)
As an example of how this phenomenon can affect individual races, let’s look at House District 5, which comprises a big chunk of the Kansas City metro area, as well as some suburbs in Jackson County (by the way, that’s where many Mormons believe the Garden of Eden was and where many believe God will return to establish the New Jerusalem—I kid you not). Normally this seat is a very safe one for the Democrat. Emanuel Cleaver, an African-American pastor, was a city councilman in Kansas City for 12 years and mayor of the town for eight years. He first won this House seat in 2004 with 55% of the vote, and has since faced the same Republican opponent, Jacob Turk, five times. Yep. Five times.
Cleaver, who is fairly liberal, beat Turk, who is really conservative, in 2006 and 2008 with 64% of the vote. But he only beat him in 2010 with 53% of the vote. Remember that year? Of course you do. It’s the Democratic Party’s ongoing nightmare. It was a very low turnout year for Democrats, especially in Kansas City, which that year saw only 38% of its registered voters show up. In Jackson County, with all the suburbs, the turnout was almost 48%. One of those suburbs was Independence, Harry Truman’s hometown. Turk beat Cleaver there. Thus, with that turnout disparity, you can see why Cleaver only got 53% and Turk got his then-best mark of 44%. In 2012, with a turnout of 65.7%, Cleaver rebounded and beat Turk with 60.5% of the vote.
Now let’s finish up with this year’s race, which, you will remember, featured a statewide turnout of 35.2%. Cleaver and Turk tangled again and Cleaver only got 51.5% of the vote versus Turk’s 45%, his best showing ever. The Libertarian got 3.5%. Now, it’s true that Cleaver still won the race by 6.5 points, but it’s also true that had voters had a different Republican candidate, one with new ideas and a new face and one that didn’t have any Libertarian pulling votes away from him, Cleaver may have gone down to defeat. That could have happened to a long-time and popular Kansas City Democratic officeholder.
It’s this simple: No Democrat should struggle to get 51.5% of the vote in a metro area like Kansas City. But apathy is not just poison for the soul—for the soul of democracy—it is especially dangerous for the soul of the Democratic Party here in Missouri and elsewhere.