The Turnout Myth
No myth is stronger in left-progressive circles than the magical, wonder-working powers of turnout. It’s become this sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your strenuously progressive positions to brush aside any questions of negative electoral effects from such positions. This quote from Saikat Chakrabarti, AOC;s chief of staff, encapsulates the theory of the case so many progressives hold dear.
“[W]e’ve got a completely different theory of change, which is: You do the biggest, most badass thing you possibly can — and that’s going to excite people, and then they’re going to go vote. Because the reality is, our problem isn’t that more people are voting Republican than Democrat — our problem is most people who would vote Democrat aren’t voting.”
This view, despite how much it warms of the hearts of many progressive activists, has remarkably little empirical support. Take 2018. Turnout in that election was outstanding and the demographic composition of the electorate came remarkably close to that of a Presidential election year. This was due to fewer Presidential dropoff voters and more midterm surge voters.
But despite this stellar turnout performance, the overwhelming majority of the Democrats’ improved performance came not from less Presidential dropoff and more midterm surge but rather from voters who voted in both elections and switched their votes from Republican in 2016 to Democratic in 2018. When I say “overwhelming” I mean it: The Democratic big data firm Catalist — whose data on 2018 are the best available — estimates that 89 percent of the Democrats’ improved performance came from persuasion — from vote-switchers — not turnout.
Or take 2016. Analysis using States of Change data indicates that, even if black turnout in that election had matched turnout in 2012, Clinton would have lost the election anyway. On the other hand, if she had merely managed to reduce her losses among white noncollege voters by one-quarter she’d be President today.
But perhaps 2020 will be different, if Democrats can just get nonvoters to the polls in large enough numbers. Then Democrats won’t have to worry about persuading Obama-Trump voters or any other voters in the much-derided “swing” category. Wrong! Nate Cohn of the Times brings a massive amount of data to bear on this question and finds the following:
“The 2020 presidential election is poised to have the highest turnout in a century, with the potential to reshape the composition of the electorate in a decisive way.
But perhaps surprisingly, it is not obvious which party would benefit. There are opportunities and risks for both parties, based on an Upshot analysis of voter registration files, the validated turnout of 50,000 respondents to The New York Times/Siena College pre-election surveys in 2018, census data, and public polls of unregistered voters.
It is commonly assumed that Democrats benefit from higher turnout because young and nonwhite and low-income voters are overrepresented among nonvoters. And for decades, polls have shown that Democrats do better among all adults than among all registered voters, and better among all registered voters than among all actual voters.
But this longstanding pattern has become more complicated in the Trump years. The president is strong among less educated white voters, who are also overrepresented among nonvoters….
Nationwide, the longstanding Republican edge in the gap between registered and actual voters all but vanished in 2018, even though young and nonwhite voters continued to vote at lower rates than older and white voters.
At the same time, the president’s white working-class supporters from 2016 were relatively likely to stay home. Voters like these are likeliest to return to the electorate in 2020, and it could set back Democrats in crucial battleground states….A large increase in voter registration would do much more to hurt the president in the national vote than in the Northern battleground states, where registration is generally high and where people who aren’t registered are disproportionately whites without a college degree….
The voters who turned out in 2016, but stayed home in 2018, were relatively favorable to Mr. Trump, and they’re presumably more likely to join the electorate than those who turned out in neither election. In a high-turnout election, these Trump supporters could turn out at a higher rate than the more Democratic group of voters who didn’t vote in either election, potentially shifting the electorate toward the president…..”
Cohn’s bottom line:
“The danger for Democrats is that higher turnout would do little to help them in the Electoral College if it did not improve their position in the crucial Midwestern battlegrounds. Higher turnout could even help the president there, where an outsize number of white working-class voters who back the president stayed home in 2018, potentially creating a larger split between the national vote and the Electoral College in 2020 than in 2016.
There’s nothing about the composition of nonvoters that means a higher-turnout election would invariably make it easier for Democrats to win the presidency, or for Republicans to keep it.”
This makes clear the embedded assumption of the turnout-will-solve-everything crowd. If we polarize the election around our progressive issues, all of our nonvoters will show up at the polls but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. That is truly magical thinking. Democrats who want to win in 2020 should — must — discard this view.
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Democrats typically gain from a broader electorate in presidential races, but that pattern is not assured in the Trump era.