The 2010 Elections' Shocking Numbers: Spending Up, Turnout Down

Angry voters should put down the checkbook and get to the voting booth.

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The sad state of American politics is easily summed up in the alarming comparison of two sets of numbers: one, by the Center for Responsive Politics, and the other, by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

Let’s start with the excellent work done by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending. On its home page is a widget that clocks the amount of money spent by candidates, parties, and interest groups on the 2010 elections. At last check, it was more than $3.54 billion--but the amount is moving so quickly that it’s outdated with a bigger number a fraction of a second later. It’s like those neon signs that clock the national debt.

Contrast that with another set of numbers, these ones tallied by the also nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, arguably the best source on voting patterns. The Center reported recently that primary turnout on the 2010 midterm elections--the ones characterized by an angry and frustrated American public--was just 17.8 percent of age-eligible citizens. That’s the second-lowest turnout ever, the center reported. Democrats reached a new low; just 8.2 percent of those eligible turned out to vote in the 42 states that had Democratic statewide primaries.

There are legitimate long-term questions about low voter turnout in a country which prides itself as a small-d democratic model for the world. Having elections on weekends, for example, or on a holiday, might get more people to the polls. Early voting and voting by mail are laudable efforts, and could be expanded. But the more baffling question is this: If Americans have such a low opinion of Congress (both parties), why do they give money to candidates or political groups? Why would wealthy candidates spend millions and millions of dollars of their own money for a job that pays a fraction of what some of them made in the private sector?

Money, unfortunately, means a lot in the outcome of campaigns, but there’s one number that trumps it all: the number of votes each candidate receives on Election Day. Americans tell us they are angry, disgusted with politics-as-usual, and worried about the economy and their mortgages. Those voters should put down the checkbook and get to the voting booth.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • See a slide show of 5 key issues in the 2010 elections.