Voter cynicism and apathy are at an all-time high, and as such we can expect the unexpected come November. Those Middle American Radicals whom Sam Francis has been writing about will either revolt at the polls or sit at home, disgusted. Thus far, during the primary season, someone has been staying home, since turnout has been abysmal. If this is an indicator of turnout during the general elections, then November 3 could be transformed into a grand opportunity for sensible people to seize the day.
Historically, low voter turnout presents ideal opportunities to win elections. Special interest groups and PACs have recognized this for some time. Because election outcomes are being determined by a dwindling number of citizens, those who do vote exercise disproportionate power. For example, in a typical U.S. congressional election, only 35 percent of the potential electorate votes. A mere 19 percent votes for the majority party, effectively sealing the fate of the congressional agenda for the entire nation.
In 1984, only 68 percent of eligible voters bothered to register to vote and only 53 percent actually cast ballots in the presidential election. Taken one step further, only 58 percent voted for the victor, President Ronald Reagan. The bottom line: a mere 31 percent of the eligible electorate voted for the man who would become a catalyst for the collapse of Soviet communism and begin recasting the U.S. Supreme Court. Turnout fell again in 1988—to just 50.2 percent of the voting-age population. In 1986, a handful of Republican U.S. Senators lost by such meager margins that, if only fifty thousand more people had voted for them, the Republicans would not have lost control of the U.S. Senate. Put simply, a relatively small number of organized, dedicated citizens can exercise enormous electoral power.
It is helpful to look at electoral “campaigns” in military terms. The map of an election can then be broken down into smaller components of battle zones—in this case, the precincts—which determine the outcome of the larger campaign. History is replete with examples of U.S. elections won by a mere one or two votes per precinct. Textbook examples on the presidential level in the 20th century include the razor-thin victories of Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy in one or two critical states by a margin of one vote or less per precinct. In 1978, Virginia Senator John Warner won his first election by less than two votes per precinct statewide against a popular opponent. Many state legislative contests in Virginia subsequently have been decided by even smaller margins—by no more than 32 votes for an entire district. A single Sunday congregation could therefore swing such an election.
The 1989 Virginia gubernatorial race is a prime example. Former Attorney General Marshall Coleman (whose policy advisors had impeccable conservative credentials) was defeated by Lieutenant Governor Douglas Wilder, a social liberal and born-again fiscal moderate. The Coleman defeat came on the heels of a last-minute Washington Post poll that predicted a wide margin of defeat, which so demoralized efforts to get out the vote that some coalition members simply gave up. The poll was wrong: after a recount, the margin of defeat was approximately two votes per precinct statewide, an avoidable loss.
Just last year, following a brutal, also demoralizing redistricting session, two Virginia House of Delegates contests ended in a tie and a near tie. After recounts, the declared winners abruptly were declared the losers by seven-vote and one-vote margins. Several other contests were almost as close, and a record number of powerful Virginia Senate incumbents were unexpectedly ousted. Some losing challengers complained that had they realized how close the outcomes would be, they would have given that final push to turn out the last thirty or fifty votes. (By the way, the changes had an impact in the legislature: for the first time in Virginia history, the General Assembly voted to override a gubernatorial veto.)
As in military campaigns with comparably matched troops, morale becomes the decisive factor in low turn-out elections. Fatalism, dire self-fulfilling polls, and low morale can transform a victory into a defeat. It is a concrete and mundane but essential realization: in this era of voter apathy, it is the shared act of bringing (literally) one more like-minded person to the polls in each neighborhood that can determine whether a good or bad candidate wins on election day. Voting and community politicking may not be glamorous, but the battle is waged on many fronts.