Republicans have a problem with young voters. Democrats have a problem with young nonvoters.
That simple equation, which applies equally to minority voters, helps explain why Republicans could enjoy another strong midterm election in 2014 without solving any of the underlying demographic challenges that threaten them in the 2016 presidential race. Next year’s election could both disappoint Democrats (by frustrating their hope of recapturing the House) and mislead Republicans (by tempting them to believe they have overcome the trends that allowed Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.) It could also highlight one of the forces that is making it difficult for either party to sustain unified control over Washington, even as they struggle to reach consensus on almost anything while power is divided.
These intertwined risks and opportunities are rooted in a new twist on a familiar phenomenon. The familiar part is the tendency of young and, more recently, minority voters to turn out in smaller numbers during midterms than in presidential elections. The new twist is that changing voting patterns have vastly raised the partisan stakes in those participation trends, creating systematic challenges for Democrats in midterm elections and for the GOP in presidential years.