The Missing Obsession With The Missing 95 Million
Nearly a month after Election Day, soul-searching Democrats are rightfully still grappling with what went wrong and what went right with the voters who showed up. There’s been far less attention on the people who didn’t: the approximately 95 million Americans eligible to vote who went missing on Election Day. As in previous elections, the most common decision by Americans this fall actually wasn’t any of the candidates. It was not to cast a ballot at all.
That puts this year’s no-show rate of around 40% of the voting-eligible population on par with other presidential elections held in the modern era, including the 2012 race. The outcome isn’t so unusual in light of GOP’s voter suppression ploys and America’s relatively low voting rates, but it’s time Democrats readying a comeback act like it’s also worth relentlessly obsessing over.
In a new survey of U.S. adult citizens conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov a week after Election Day, 27% of the non-voters said they regretted not having voted and wished they had done so. It’s a troublingly low percentage, but it’s not zero. Furthermore, if given a do-over, 27% of those non-voters reported that they would choose Clinton while 19% of the non-voters would back Trump.
What if those regretful non-voters had shown up and cast a ballot for their preferred candidate? It’s a fantasy scenario that’s fairly easy to determine, if one takes a simplified approach: just take 27% of eligible non-voters in each state, pretend 27% voted for Clinton and 19% voted for Trump, and voila. Hillary Clinton would then win the Electoral College, not just the popular vote.
In this simulation, Clinton would gain 7 million more voters while Trump would gain 5 million more. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would tip to Clinton, netting her 279 Electoral College votes versus 259 for Trump. Extra effort plowed into Florida could tip the state’s 29 Electoral College votes to Clinton as well.
(Among the 27% of non-voters who wished they had voted, the margin of preference for Clinton over Trump is even higher than 27% vs. 19%, according to The Huffington Post. However, those sample sizes are too small to report and use, so the simulation uses the 27% vs. 19% margin that is less favorable to Clinton. It’s also worth noting that only 33% of survey respondents openly told the pollster they didn’t vote, a lower figure than the actual non-voting rate.)
Now, this simplistic simulation is just that: a simplistic simulation based on one poll, with many caveats, flaws, and alternative combinations. To sincerely believe all 7 million would’ve turned out in real life to vote and then actually voted for Clinton is, to be charitable, wishful thinking — more so in light of people’s various motives for opting out and the GOP’s systematic voter suppression schemes.
Given the very narrow margins of victory in a few pivotally important Rust Belt states, there’s also risk in over-learning or misinterpreting what happened in 2016. After all, because this election with no single determinative factor still ultimately came down to 100,000 voters across Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, one could suppose that Democrats just better make sure to step up their ground game and reverse the depressed turnout rates in key areas there.
That said, boosting the civic participation rates of Americans from all walks of life has long been a core Democratic priority. It still is. The 2016 election results, plus the broader dynamics they reflect, only magnify the urgency and importance of the work — and the good news is that there’s an enormous pool of unclaimed and potential get-table voters out there. The rescue of our republic from mutation into a decrepit and corrupt authoritarian regime may even be at stake, since the more ordinary voters of decency pull back from civic life, the dimmer the chance of success becomes.
A national voter turnout rate that’s higher by a few percentage points is not a wholly implausible proposition either. According to research on non-voters in the 2012 election cycle, 38% of non-voter types belonged to the “Pessimist” and “Active Faithfuls” subgroups most actively hostile to voting — which leaves the rest as potentially up for grabs. In the new poll of non-voters cited earlier, many excuses given for abstention should be fixable in theory: not enough time to vote, too complicated to vote, not registered, didn’t think voting mattered. (The demographics profile of those respondents is worth digging into as well, although the sample size is quite small. Furthermore, as this New York Times profile of non-voters in 2012 notes, demographics offer only partial explanations.)
Indeed, the candidates for the next chief of the Democratic National Committee, the next set of state Democratic Party leaders, and the next candidates to run for the Democratic presidential nomination should set forth their ideas to make it happen.
Making good on that goal will depend on the other pieces of a necessarily expansive agenda, plus an honest and comprehensive rethinking of the party’s broader direction, values, messaging, and policies. If Democrats wait until summer 2020 to resurrect voter registration and get-out-the-vote programs for another “most important election of your life,” it’ll be too late.
It won’t be enough to just do the must-do items wherever possible — combatting the coming assault on voting rights and implementing the mainstream pro-voting ideas already on the table, like same-day or automatic voter registration. Democrats need to intensify and accelerate efforts as part of a longer-term strategy to bring more Americans off the sidelines, as if the party’s political survival depends on it. We need to support and sustain year-round, person-to-person organizing by unions, community groups, and other civic institutions already embedded throughout the country, new American traditions like #FamilyVote to instill the habit as early as possible, and unconventional ideas like mandatory voting in the cities and on college campuses.
As part of the widespread handwringing over the working class vote, we also need to avoid the defection of groups whose marginalized identities intersect with their economic status — and figure out what’s special and replicable about the 1 in 4 white voters without a college education who bucked national trends to choose Clinton over Trump. We need more compelling messages backed by more compelling policies — the kind that offers an immediately and broadly resonating vision for America, one that’s brimming with dignity, hope, and prosperity.
We’ll need to do it all. If you don’t see the threat that Donald Trump will otherwise pose in 2020 — brandishing a “I will break the rules to save your job” slogan amid rampant lies in the media and a severe crackdown on the voting rights of Democratic-leaners — you’re not paying attention.
An actual do-over of November 8, 2016, with all those regretful non-voters added back — or a gazillion other changes identified with 20/20 hindsight — obviously isn’t possible without a time machine. Perhaps it also took the surreal and at times ominous spectacle of this President-Elect’s transition to finally convince those Americans that maybe, just maybe, they should’ve bothered to vote. What Democrats do have for certain are more future elections on the docket, and a party to rebuild — rendering those 95 million voters a reason for our determination, not despair.
Update on Dec. 22, 2016: I updated this map illustrating that non-voters constitute the biggest voting bloc in most states. The data and map are available here. Key: yellow pin = winner is “did not vote”; blue pin = winner is Hillary Clinton; red pin = winner is Donald Trump.