Obama Re-Enters Politics in Anticipation of November's Midterms

 Barack Obama speaking on behalf of California congressional candidates in Anaheim last month ( source )

Barack Obama speaking on behalf of California congressional candidates in Anaheim last month (source)

 

Based on international standards for established democracies, the United States consistently sees astonishingly low voter turnout rates. In presidential election years, around 60% of eligible voters in the US head to the polls. Turnout rates in years without a presidential race are even lower - averaging about 40% participation for registered voters in the country. Trends of such meager voter participation in the US are not new - these low rates have persisted since the early 20th century. In contrast, countries with compulsory voting laws, such as Australia, Belgium, and Chile, average about 90% voter participation in all elections.

 
 Then-President Obama greeting Donald Trump at the president-elect’s swearing-in ceremony last year ( source )

Then-President Obama greeting Donald Trump at the president-elect’s swearing-in ceremony last year (source)

However, as the United States prepares for November’s midterm elections, Republicans and Democrats alike are searching for new ways to mobilize voters to go to the polls. Due to President Trump’s extremely low approval ratings, the likes of which have not been seen since Harry Truman’s second year in office, Republicans are strategizing ways to rally support for candidates of their party that do not involve sending the president on the campaign trail. As Vice President Mike Pence consistently polls better in public approval than President Trump, he has become a key part of the Republican midterm campaign strategy. The Vice President held early meetings and fundraising efforts at the Republican National Convention in January and is expected to have attended “as many as 30 events for House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates across the country [prior to the 2018 midterms].”

 

For Democrats, former president Barack Obama has re-entered the public realm in an effort to mobilize progressive citizens to vote for Democrats in the upcoming midterms. However, whether this decision is a benefit or burden to the Democratic Party remains to be seen.

Some Republicans argue that the segment of the electorate that did not support President Obama and were motivated to vote for President Trump in 2016 as a result will be energized once again to show up and vote for the GOP in November.

In response to President Obama’s visit to Ohio in mid-September to campaign for Democratic Senator Bob Casey, Rep. Lou Barletta, Casey’s Republican challenger, said on behalf of her campaign that the former President’s visit was “perfect for us” and that it would “energize Republicans as a reminder.” Other Republican voters are unconcerned about Obama’s recent participation in Democratic campaigns because his campaigning efforts for Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not end favorably for Democrats.

Some Democrats, on the other hand, believe that President Obama’s recent political involvement will serve as a welcome boost as midterm elections begin. Because it is relatively uncommon for former presidents to step back into the political fray after leaving office, it is possible that Obama’s re-emergence will send “a message about the stakes of the race[s], which could have implications for redistricting and voting rights in the future.”

Additionally, while general trends show that Republican voters tend to show up to the polls in midterm years at higher rates than Democrats, that could be different in 2018. Between 2006 and 2010, Republican candidates’ vote share increased in 186 districts across the country while Democrats’ vote share between during that time only increased in 35 districts. However, data from the 2018 primary elections reveals that the share of Democratic votes in primary elections, as compared to 2014, has increased in 123 districts; Republican vote share in the same time period has only increased in 19 districts.

The question remains whether Democrats can maintain these levels of voter participation in the forthcoming midterm general elections. It is unclear how President Obama’s recent involvement in Democratic campaigns will influence voter turnout in November, if at all. His presence may energize Republicans that voted for Trump as a pushback to Obama-era policies. Just as likely is that the former president’s involvement may alert Democrats to the importance of the upcoming elections and encourage them to vote. Either way, the outcomes of November’s elections will likely have drastic implications for President Trump’s policy agenda and for the coming redistricting efforts, the effects of which will be felt for years to come.