Turnout Myths Are the Democrats' Drug of Choice
Anything To Avoid Having To Actually Persuade Voters
Turnout myths die hard. In fact they don’t seem to die at all.
That is particularly the case in Democratic circles. You don’t have to talk to a typical Democrat for any length of time before they evince their touching faith in the wonder-working powers of high voter turnout. Interrogate them a little further and it turns out what they really mean is that the stark choices presented to the electorate by Democrats’ progressive policies and Republicans’ reactionary ones will, if presented forcefully enough, produce massive turnout by Democratic-leaning constituencies (nonwhites, young voters, etc) that will neutralize Republican advantages.
We can see the latest example of this in how many Democrats are approaching the 2022 elections. The giant hole the Democrats are now in is hard to deny. Biden’s approval rating, a key indicator of midterm outcomes, is now below 40 percent in the 538 rolling average and below where Trump’s was at this point in the 2018 cycle. Republicans are comfortably ahead on the generic Congressional ballot, which typically underestimates their chances and augurs a big election for them. Gallup just released a comprehensive historical review of midterm indicators (Presidential and Congressional approval, satisfaction with the direction of the country, views on economic conditions) which shows the Democrats’ current situation to be exceptionally grim.
Democrats’ approach to digging out of this hole relies heavily on turnout. Either implicitly or explicitly, Democrats think of issues like abortion, guns, “MAGA Republicans” and, of course, January 6th mostly as ways of motivating their base to turn out at higher levels in the current dismal political environment. In a typical example, Robert Kuttner in an article “Democracy Summer” in The American Prospect stated:
The survival of Democrats in 2022 will depend heavily on turnout. Though Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, he will be our not-so-secret weapon….America today has few swing voters, but dozens of swing districts where turnout will determine the winner. If Democratic voters turn out, Democrats win.
There are, however, a number of reasons why this turnout fix is highly unlikely to work and, in fact, borders on the delusional.
1. Some Simple Math. Start with this: when Democrats persuade a voter to switch sides, that nets two votes for the Democrats (one less for the Republicans, one more for the Democrats). When Democrats turn out one more voter to vote Democratic that is, of course, a net of only one vote for them.
But it’s really worse than that. Typically, Democrats think of increased base turnout in terms of turning out more voters from various pro-Democratic demographic groups—young voters, black voters, Hispanic voters, college-educated whites, whatever. But not all the voters in these groups favor the Democrats so mobilization of more voters from a given group may well net less than one vote per additional voter. For example, looking at current Congressional ballot preferences, Democrats might net only a third of a vote for every additional Hispanic or young voter, six-tenths of a vote from every additional black voter and just a sixth of a vote from every additional college-educated white voter.
The math looks even more unfavorable when the following is considered: Democrats tend to assume that nonvoters from a given demographic are the same politically as voters from the same group….except they don’t vote. But a mountain of political science evidence shows that’s not so. Nonvoters, controlling for demographics, tend to be less ideological and, very importantly, if they do vote tend to swing in the direction of the prevailing political environment—which of course is currently terrible for the Democrats and likely to be so on election day. This means the “yield” for the Democrats from higher turnout could be even less than the data above indicates.
Finally, the general assumption seems to be that an aggressively polarized election will juice turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies....but (somehow) not on the other side. That’s not the way it works. The other side gets to vote too so dialing it up to 11 on the Democratic positions may mobilize the other side just as much—maybe more!—than the left’s side. Once again, the basic math on the turnout-driven strategy is much less favorable than most Democrats assume.
2. The Empirical Record. The evidence for turnout patterns driving Democrats’ electoral fate is extremely thin as conclusively demonstrated in The Turnout Myth: Voting Rates and Partisan Outcomes in American National Elections by political scientists Daron Shaw and John Petrocik. Recent election results bear this out.
Take the 2020 election. That election presented a very stark choice to voters. And it was indeed a high turnout election. The problem: everyone’s turnout went up, including among groups Democrats would have preferred stayed home. The net result of higher turnout did not significantly boost Democratic fortunes; if anything Republicans may have a benefitted a bit more from the higher levels of turnout. This helps explain why Biden’s 2020 victory was so much narrower than anticipated and why the election saw Democrats lose ground in the House and in state legislatures
Closer to the present, look at the Virginia 2021 gubernatorial election. The highly-polarized election, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a heavily blue-trending state, was a very high turnout election. Under the state’s newly liberalized voting laws, the number of votes cast in this governor’s race was 25 percent higher than in any previous race. Turnout was strong everywhere, including in important Democratic areas like northern Virginia, black precincts and college towns, but also surged in redder areas of the state.
The real reason why McAuliffe lost was, above all, vote-switching—in other words, persuasion. According to a detailed vote history analysis by Civis Analytics, vote-switching from 2020 to 2021 accounted for about 80 percent of the shift away from the Democrats in the gubernatorial election.
Finally, cast your mind back to the 2018 midterm election where the Democrats did so well. In that election, the Democrats took back the House (a net 40-seat gain), carried the House popular vote by almost nine points and flipped seven Republican-held governorships. Turnout in that election was outstanding, topping 49 percent — the highest midterm turnout since 1914 and up 13 points over the previous midterm, in 2014 — and the demographic composition of the electorate came remarkably close to that of a presidential election year. (Typically, midterm voters tend to be much older and much whiter than those in presidential elections.) This was due both to fewer presidential “drop-off” voters (people who voted in 2016 but not 2018) and to more midterm “surge” voters (those who voted in 2018 but not 2016).
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of the Democrats’ improved performance came not from fresh turnout of left-of-center voters who typically skip midterms, but rather from people who cast votes in both elections — yet switched from Republican in 2016 to Democratic in 2018. The data firm Catalist, whose numbers on 2018 are the best available, estimates that around 90 percent of the Democrats’ improved performance came from persuasion — from vote-switchers — not turnout. In its analysis, Catalist notes, “If turnout was the only factor, then Democrats would not have seen nearly the gains that they ended up seeing … a big piece of Democratic victory was due to 2016 Trump voters turning around and voting for Democrats in 2018.”
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that higher turnout is not the Holy Grail for the Democrats, either in this coming election or in future ones. Instead, it is time for them to recover the lost art of persuasion. It may be too late in the current cycle for this to be done or done enough to make a difference. But done it will have to be if Democrats are serious about creating a durable majority that can carry their agenda forward.
As I have noted previously, Democrats may be better off accepting they will take their lumps in 2022 (while attempting to minimize the damage) but use the election as a teachable moment. That teachable moment should be, above all, about re-acquainting the party with the actually-existing demographics and politics of the country they live in. Given patterns of educational and geographic polarization, they are now at a crippling disadvantage in what remains an overwhelmingly working class and non-urban country. There are simply too many districts and states in the country where polarization redounds to their disadvantage and makes them uncompetitive. That is not a problem that can be solved by “mobilizing the base”. It calls instead for expanding your coalition by persuading more working class and non-urban voters you share their values and priorities.
I made some suggestions for this in my essay on “How to Fix the Democratic Brand”. In my view, this is the debate Democrats should be having not which hot-button issue can generate a chimerical turnout tsunami to wash away their opponents.