On November 6th, 2012 just under 66 million Americans voted for Barack Obama while almost 61 million voted for Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile, over 106 million Americans of voting age stayed home.
Those 106 million potential voters haunt so many candidates who are convinced that they are the key to victory. Such a large number of potential supporters is just too tempting and campaigns become convinced that they’ll be the ones to finally engage the disaffected.
We are seeing this right now in the presidential election.
“I can’t tell you how many people come up to me, say they haven’t voted in 20 or 30 years, and say they’re for Trump,” Congressman Lou Barletta recently asserted.
The problem? There is no way someone who hasn’t voted in three decades suddenly decided to get back into the process. It’s much more likely that these constituents are lying to themselves.
Think about it, over the past few decades the GOP has nominated unsuccessful candidates (Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney), a President who lost re-election (George H.W. Bush) and another President whose fiscal policies led his party to disown him (George W. Bush).
Meanwhile the man who was President 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan, is considered by the party faithful to be the equal of Lincoln. Those people Rep. Barletta spoke to didn’t stop voting for decades, they’re just afraid to admit they did.
People often retroactively state that they voted for the winner of the last election even when they didn’t. I once met a woman who was convinced she voted for the winner of every presidential contest since 1976.
So it makes sense that Republicans believe this, especially since it’s what their leaders tell them. Donald Trump has mentioned numerous times that he’s experiencing the same phenomenon as Rep. Barletta.
Trump even went so far as to suggest to the Tribune-Review’s Salena Zito that he “might have a shot at New York” despite the fact that the latest Siena poll shows Clinton leading Trump 56% to 30% in the Empire State.
The media feeds into this perception as well.
Ask any expert how George W. Bush won the 2004 election and they’ll likely tell you about Karl Rove’s brilliant strategy to put gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in eleven key states to increase evangelical turnout.
In reality, Bush’s victory (the only popular vote win for the GOP since 1988) was the result of his impressive performance among Latino voters. The former Texas Governor spoke Spanish, had Mexican relatives and made a major effort to reach out.
Even during the 2012 campaign, one Romney aide conceded that “this is the last time anyone will try” to rely so much on the white vote.
It seems fair to say that the nomination of Donald Trump was not what they had in mind.
As GOP strategist Christopher Nicholas told NPR this week, “At the end of the day, I just don’t think there’s enough angry old white people in Pennsylvania to make up for the fact of what Trump is doing on the other side to motivate the Democratic base. I hope I’m wrong.”
Make no mistake, though, the belief in the invisible voter is not a one-party phenomenon.
In fact, the candidate most dependent on it right now is Bernie Sanders, he of the “political revolution”.
Bernie believes his campaign reaches out to the disenfranchised in a way that no other politician can. Yet you’d be hard pressed to think of a voting bloc more disenfranchised than Southern black voters, many of whom were born before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
So how did Sanders perform among older black voters in the South? Well on Super Tuesday, black voters over 60 years old favored Hillary over Bernie by a 92% to 6% margin.
Sanders blamed his lackluster performance by claiming poor people don’t vote. A debatable statement that begs the question, why wouldn’t poor people want to support his political revolution for the 99%?
In the end, though, does this all really matter? I would argue that it definitely does.
The belief that millions of people really secretly agree with you is not a healthy perspective, nor is it great for a democracy to have so many disengaged from the political process.
For now, though, campaigns should deal with the electorate as it is, not as they want it to be.