Why 2020 Is a Turnout Election

The 2018 Democratic House gains were driven by higher turnout. This year will be the same—if Democrats do it right.

by Robert Creamer

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In a recent piece in The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg describes academic research arguing that persuasion rather than higher turnout will be the critical factor in the upcoming presidential election. According to a piece of academic research she cites, electing a Democrat based on higher turnout would require a surge, especially among young voters, that would have to exceed the Obama surge among black voters in 2008.

These researchers think that is improbable. In fact, increasing turnout is the most likely path to Democratic victory. That is true whoever is the ultimate Democratic nominee.

Election campaigns are all about one thing: changing the behavior of voters to increase the odds they will elect the campaign’s candidate. After all, if the idea were to get voters to do what they would do in the absence of a campaign, everyone involved should simply go to the beach.

There are only two groups of people whose electoral behavior can in fact be changed by a campaign—swing voters and nonvoters.

The ones we think about most are persuadable voters. These are voters who might vote Republican in one election and Democratic in another. In general elections, there are very few actual persuadable voters, since most people regularly vote either for Democrats or Republicans. In primaries, on the other hand, almost every voter can often be considered persuadable, since there are rarely hard-and-fast historic loyalties that guarantee that voters will vote one way or another.

In this fall’s general election, there is a maximum of 10 percent of the electorate in battleground states who are truly persuadable. And the number likely to actually be persuaded is much lower still.

In the 2016 general election, 3.6 percent of the electorate moved from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to vote for Trump in 2016. And 1.9 percent of the electorate moved from voting for Romney in 2012 to Clinton in 2016. That is a total of 5.5 percent of the electorate who were actually persuaded to change their behavior in 2016. And note that through those exchanges of persuadable voters, Democrats lost only a net of 1.7 percent of the electorate to Trump because they were persuaded to switch parties.

In general elections, there are very few actual persuadable voters. In primaries, on the other hand, almost every voter can often be considered persuadable.

From a campaign’s point of view, true persuadable voters have two characteristics: 1) They generally vote, and 2) They are undecided. Voters who are both undecided and not likely to vote are not of interest to most campaigns, because campaigns do not want to waste energy to persuade them if they won’t vote anyway and don’t want to try to mobilize them to vote if they might vote the wrong way.

Even though the percentage of the electorate that is persuadable is a tiny slice, it generally receives the lion’s share of campaign effort, TV ads, mail, and media attention.

The second group whose behavior can be changed are mobilizable voters. These are voters who would likely vote to support our candidate or party but are unlikely to vote unless they are mobilized. In American politics, there is a massive number of mobilizable voters who for one reason or another don’t go to the polls in general elections. In fact, in 2016, fully 43 percent of eligible voters did not bother to vote. Of the 232 million eligible voters, only about 132 million actually cast a ballot.

Of this number, a disproportionate percentage would vote Democratic if they actually went to the polls. Often, they are people who are younger, lower-income, and feel less empowered than society in general. In addition to the vast number who rarely ever vote, in the last election 4.3 percent of the electorate who had actually gone to the polls and voted for Barack Obama in 2012 either failed to vote at all or voted for a third-party protest candidate in 2016.

In 2018, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives because there was a substantial increase in turnout among mobilizable voters—and especially young mobilizable voters. In fact, the Census Bureau found that 36 percent of citizens aged 18-29 reported voting in the 2018 midterms, compared to only 20 percent in the previous midterm election in 2014—a 16 percent increase. Turnout was also up by 13 percent among those aged 30-44. In fact, youth turnout in 2018 was the highest in any midterm since 1980.

The Washington Post also reported that the Census Bureau found that while Hispanic and Asian citizens have historically voted at far lower rates than whites and blacks, turnout grew in 2018 to record midterm highs for both groups. Hispanic turnout rose from 27 percent in 2014 to 40 percent last year, while Asian turnout increased from 27 percent to 41 percent.

A number of swing voters in suburban districts also moved from voting Republican to voting for a Democratic congressional candidate. However, Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats would not likely have won a majority without the massive increase in turnout.

According to the Post, “The largest turnout shifts were among groups that favored Democratic congressional candidates as a whole, fueling the party’s 8.6-point victory in overall congressional support.”

Of course, most good campaigns focus both on convincing persuadable voters to support their candidate and on turning out low-propensity voters who would vote Democratic but need to be mobilized to vote. But even in the best campaigns, the elements of the campaign aimed at voter mobilization often get the short end of the resource stick. That is particularly true because polling tracks persuasion but not potential mobilization—which also explains why the polls failed to project the correct winner in 2016.

The 2020 election is a turnout election.

Some elections have particularly heavy persuasion components. Obama’s re-election campaign against Romney involved equal components of persuasion and mobilization, since Romney could have been an acceptable choice for many high-education independents and some white working-class voters. The Obama campaign had to disqualify Romney among workers using his connections with big corporations and Bain Capital. It also had to convince independent voters that Obama had been a forceful, competent leader.

A disproportionate percentage of nonvoters would vote Democratic if they actually went to the polls. Often, they are people who are younger, lower-income, and feel less empowered than society in general.

But today, most regular voters have strongly held views about Donald Trump. The voters who moved from Romney to Clinton in 2016 did so mainly because they were opposed to Trump’s positions on cultural issues like immigration and women’s rights—or they were disgusted by him personally. The last three and a half years have not changed their views. They are very unlikely to vote for Trump no matter who the Democratic candidate is—and they are almost certain to vote, since they always vote.

There is a small number of white working-class voters who voted for Trump last time and who might be persuaded to vote for Sanders or Biden.

But in either case, turnout will be the key. If Biden is the ultimate nominee, it will be critical for him to turn out young people and others in the Sanders base. And of course, Sanders has premised his entire candidacy on his ability to mobilize new voters.

The Goldberg piece raises the prospect that current polling showing Sanders beating Trump may overstate his performance in the actual election, often by larger margins than his competitors for the nomination. Of course, any number of factors could intervene before Election Day. But in fact, these polls may actually understate his support, since they do not factor in the effect of the higher turnout that Sanders might inspire relative to some of his more moderate opponents.

This election will be decided on the same basis as the midterms in 2018: turnout.

All of the choices surrounding the selection of the candidate, the application of resources, the targeting of messaging, and the levels of organization should be determined based upon their effect on levels of turnout among mobilizable voters who are unlikely to vote unless they are mobilized.

It is critical to remember that messages about persuasion and mobilization are aimed at two distinct groups of voters, and are about two separate subjects.

Persuasion messages are all about the qualities of the candidate—since they are intended to convince swing voters to support one of two or more candidates that they are considering.

Mobilization messages are about the voters, since democratic-leaning mobilizable voters would vote for our candidate in large numbers if they came out. The problem is not convincing them which candidate to choose, but rather why it matters to them personally to get off their couch and cast their ballot.

There are many reasons people don’t vote:

  • It’s too much trouble.
  • They don’t believe the outcome will matter to them or to their lives.
  • They feel powerless, generally—so why would their vote matter?
  • It’s inconvenient.
  • They don’t know how or where to vote.

Get-out-the-vote messaging addresses these kinds of issues. It is often about convincing them that everyone is doing it; that it’s easy and convenient; that their neighbors will find out if they voted or not.

Sometimes it’s about repetition, or “I won’t get off your porch until you vote.” Sometimes it’s about anger at one of the candidates.

Research has found that getting people to make a commitment to vote and asking them to visualize how they will vote increases turnout.

But there is one message that is enormously powerful for both persuadable and mobilizable voters: inspiration.

You inspire people by making them feel like they are part of something larger than themselves, and that they can personally make a significant contribution to achieving the greater goal. Inspiration attracts persuadable voters. But it is indispensable to motivate mobilizable voters.

If Biden is the ultimate nominee, it will be critical for him to turn out young people and others in the Sanders base. And of course, Sanders has premised his entire candidacy on his ability to mobilize new voters.

More than anything, Democrats need a candidate—and campaign messaging—that inspires people. Inspiration addresses many of the most profound reasons people don’t vote. It makes potential voters feel empowered, and it makes voting seem important because it makes the outcome of the election a result that affects them and their personal aspirations as part of the campaign team—not just something that they observe as a spectator.

People don’t pay good money to go to a ball game so they can dispassionately observe two great teams play. They go when they are committed to one of the teams. And when their team wins, they don’t say, “they won”; they say, “we won.”

It’s the same way in politics. Inspiration makes voters part of the campaign team. It makes the voter feel personally responsible for the outcome of the election.

When Barack Obama won his historic victory in 2008, some African American voters took pictures of their enslaved grandparents with them to the polls as they cast a ballot for the first African American president of the United States. The election’s outcome was about them—not just the candidate.

To win, whoever is the nominee must have an inspiring message that engages mobilizable voters. Clinton failed to do so, and we know the result.

Inspiration is more important in the fall elections than any policy differences or political label. And when we talk about “electability,” there is one major criterion we should evaluate: Who can inspire the voters?

Robert Creamer has been a political organizer and strategist for five decades and is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.

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