by Ruy Teixeira
No myth is stronger in progressive circles than the magical, wonderworking powers of voter turnout. It’s become a sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your strenuously progressive positions to ward off any suggestion that they might turn off voters. That is how Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., now the Democratic presidential front-runner, has dealt with criticism that his more unpopular stances — including eliminating private health insurance, decriminalizing the border and covering undocumented immigrants in a government health plan — might cost him the votes he needs to beat President Donald Trump.
Sanders’ explanation of why this is not a problem is simple. He repeats it endlessly. When a Los Angeles Times editorial board member asked whether “a candidate as far to the left as you” would “alienate swing voters and moderates and independents,” the senator replied: “The only way that you beat Trump is by having an unprecedented campaign, an unprecedentedly large voter turnout.” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, adds: “Bernie Sanders has very unique appeal amongst [the younger] generation and can inspire, I think, a bunch of them to vote in percentages that they have never voted before.”
This has remarkably little empirical support. Take the 2018 midterm elections, in which 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% — 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 89% 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.”
Crucially, Democrats in 2018, especially the successful ones, did not run on particularly radical programs but rather on opposition to Trump himself, and to unpopular GOP actions on economic policy and health care (tax cuts for the rich and efforts to repeal Obamacare’s protections, for example). In the end, the 2018 results do not support Sanders’ theories — not the central importance of high turnout, nor the supposed non-importance of changing mainstream voters’ minds.
Or take 2016. Many pundits, including Steve Phillips of Democracy in Color, have suggested that Hillary Clinton failed to inspire core Democratic voters — notably African Americans — and that a more progressive candidate would have done so (and won). “The Democratic Party’s fixation on pursuing those who voted for Mr. Trump is a fool’s errand,” Phillips wrote. But an analysis using data from the States of Change project, sponsored by, among others, the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, indicates that, even if black turnout in the 2016 election had matched that of 2012 (it dropped from 62 to 57%), Clinton would have still lost. On the other hand, if she had managed to reduce her losses among white noncollege voters by a mere one-quarter, she’d be president today. That’s an issue of persuasion, not turnout.
What’s more, States of Change data do not suggest that youth turnout, which Sanders promises to increase so significantly, was a particular Democratic problem in 2016. In fact, young voters (ages 18 to 29) increased their turnout more than any other age group in that election, from 42% in 2012 to 44% in 2016. They also increased — if very slightly — their margin of support for the Democratic candidate. In 2016, the age cohort that really killed Democrats was voters ages 45 to 64, who split evenly in 2012 but leaned Republican by six percentage points four years later. Sanders’ bouquet of unpopular positions hardly seems likely to help the Democrats make up ground among these voters.
But perhaps 2020 will be different if a Sanders candidacy can truly catalyze massive turnout. Then Democrats won’t have to worry about persuading Obama-Trump voters or anyone else in the “swing” category. Wrong!
As Nate Cohn of The New York Times has noted after scrutinizing the data, it’s a mistake to assume that Democrats would benefit disproportionately from high turnout. Trump is particularly strong among white noncollege voters, who dominate the pool of nonvoters in many areas of the country, including in key Rust Belt states. If the 2020 election indeed has historically high turnout, as many analysts expect, that spike could include many of these white noncollege voters in addition to Democratic-leaning constituencies such as nonwhites and young voters. The result could be an increase in Democrats’ popular-vote total — and another loss in the electoral college.
This analysis shreds an implicit assumption of Sanders and other members of the turnout-will-solve-everything crowd: that if they polarize the election by highlighting progressive issues, “their” nonvoters will show up at the polls, but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. That view is also contradicted by many political science studies. Stanford political scientists Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson, for example, studied House races between 2006 and 2014 and found that highly ideological candidates who beat moderates for a party nomination indeed increased turnout in their own party in the general election — but they increased the opposition turnout even more. (The difference was between three and eight percentage points.) Apparently, their extreme political stances did more to turn out the other side to vote against them than to turn out their own side to vote for them.
The turnout equation does not necessarily return positive results for a candidate like Sanders. The reverse is more likely. It is magical thinking to believe that, in a highly polarized situation, only your side gets to increase turnout. And if the other side turns out in droves, you might not like the results — a warning Democrats should heed.
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is author of “The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think” and “Red, Blue and Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics.”