The Democratic Party, Donald Trump & the 2016 Turnout Problem
Primary voter turnout in doubly-contested years (source; click to enlarge). Notice the large Democratic advantage in 2008 (lower graph) and the relatively lower Democratic turnout so far in 2016 (upper graph).
by Gaius Publius
One of the noticeable features, if feature is the word, of the 2016 presidential contest so far is the marked difference in voter turnout. On the Democratic side, turnout overall is significantly down. On the other hand, Republican turnout is way up. (See chart at the top.)
There are at least three factors at play here, and one very large problem. Those factors — turnout driven by the Clinton candidacy; turnout driven by the Sanders candidacy; and turnout, both Democratic and Republican, driven by Trump's presence in the race. The first is quite low; the second is not yet well understood; and the third, on the Republican side, is quite high. We know the Republican turnout is Trump-driven because he's the exciting candidate on the Republican side, he's winning, and turnout is well above Republican norms.
On the Democratic side, attributing the low voter turnout to candidates is difficult for a number of reasons. One is that two viable candidates are on the ballot; another is that we don't know to what degree Republican contests are stealing independent voters from Democratic contests (i.e., Trump driving Democratic turnout down). What we do know, however, is that in areas that are more or less exclusively Clinton's domain — where she competes neither with Trump nor, for the most part, with Sanders — her numbers are nowhere near Barack Obama's numbers in 2008.
Nick Confessore, the author of the article linked below, quotes a pollster who puts it this way:
“Barack Obama without that surge [in new voters] is John Kerry [who lost to George Bush].”Thus the very large problem. If the Democratic candidate is Hillary Clinton, she may be facing a wave of turnout for the other side, a problem similar to the one John McCain faced in 2008 and Mitt Romney, to a lesser degree, faced in 2012.
Because Confessore's piece focuses on Clinton's turnout problems, I'll cover just that part here. (If the Democratic nominee is Bernie Sanders, the analysis is more complicated. Some preliminary thoughts at the bottom on that, but the data is not in.)
Confessore writes (my emphasis):
Beneath Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday Wins, Signs of Turnout TroubleConfessore cites a number of Clinton-specific districts, those where Clinton was significantly more successful than Bernie Sanders, and also looks at the general case of Massachusetts. For example (my emphasis):
Hillary Rodham Clinton set out 10 months ago to inspire and energize the Democratic Party, hoping to bring together the rising American electorate of black, brown, young and female voters into a durable presidential coalition. But buried beneath Mrs. Clinton’s wide-ranging and commanding victories on Tuesday night were troubling signs of a party that has not yet rallied to her call.
Democratic turnout has fallen drastically since 2008, the last time the party had a contested primary, with roughly three million fewer Democrats voting in the 15 states that held caucuses or primaries through Tuesday, according to unofficial election results. It declined in virtually every state, dropping by roughly 50 percent in states like Minnesota and Texas. In Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia, the number of Democrats voting decreased by roughly a third.
The fall-off in Democratic primary turnout — which often reveals whether a candidate is exciting voters and attracting them to the polls — reached deeply into some of the core groups of voters Mrs. Clinton must not only win in November, but turn out in large numbers. It stands in sharp contrast to the flood of energized new voters showing up at the polls to vote for Donald J. Trump in the Republican contest.
Some Democrats now worry that Mrs. Clinton will have difficulty matching the surge in new black, Hispanic, and young voters who came to the polls for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“Barack Obama without that surge is John Kerry,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, referring to the losing Democratic nominee in 2004. “Just turning out the traditional minority base is not a 51 percent pathway going into November.”
- "In three precincts of Virginia’s Third Congressional District, the heart of the state’s African-American community, where overwhelming black turnout in 2008 helped Mr. Obama win the state, turnout was down by an average of almost 30 percent on Tuesday night."
- "Mrs. Clinton’s strong victory in South Carolina, which was celebrated for her dominance among African-American voters, obscured a big decline in black turnout of about 40 percent."
- "On Super Tuesday, Republicans smashed turnout records in Massachusetts, a traditionally Democratic-leaning state, and saw huge turnout in both Virginia and Tennessee."
But the answer may also be simply the candidates, or the fact that the leading candidate is not Barack Obama. Nevertheless, there is some early reason to be concerned.
What About Sanders and Turnout?
Confessore doesn't dig into that, so we have to speculate. The data may well show that Sanders voters are turning out in greater numbers than Clinton voters, though in a state like South Carolina, so dominated by the institutional Democratic Party, the numbers could be skewed enough to make that not readily visible.
But the answer — and this needs to be checked — may also come from another aspect of the race, alluded to above. The media has managed to paint this election as already a contest between Trump and Clinton, and low-information (i.e., busy) voters may be buying that. In states where voters can choose which primary or caucus to participate in, potential Sanders voters may choose to vote for the more exciting Trump, rejecting the presumed Democratic nominee and not casting a vote on the Democratic side.
Put more simply, Trump may be cannibalizing Democratic turnout in a primary that Clinton is presumed to have "already won" nationally.
For example, look at that Super Tuesday comment again:
"On Super Tuesday, Republicans smashed turnout records in Massachusetts, a traditionally Democratic-leaning state, and saw huge turnout in both Virginia and Tennessee."Did Trump's greater turnout (he "smashed records") account for Clinton's narrow win over Sanders in Massachusetts, by taking Sanders-leaning independent votes from the Democratic primary? That's at least possible if you look at Sanders' well documented greater appeal to independents relative to Ms. Clinton's. Trump may have become the default choice of potential "Sanders voters" in Massachusetts, if those voters thought the national Democratic race was already over.
Which leads to these thoughts, also speculative. It's possible that in a Clinton–Trump contest, turnout alone would be against her, even before adding in any other turnout effects, such as the effect of negative advertising. In other words, assuming the Republican vote in a Clinton–Trump contest would be high anyway (the "Trump effect"), Clinton would have to overperform (according to Confessore and those he interviewed) among non-white voters in order to offset the working class and non-ethic vote that Trump might easily draw (again, my emphasis):
[D]espite the seemingly inexorable demographic rise of Hispanic voters, the American electorate is still overwhelmingly white. Some analysts said they believed Mr. Trump could even exceed Mitt Romney’s 59 percent share of the white vote — winning over disaffected Republicans and even working-class Democratic men, and putting Democratic-leaning swing states like Michigan, and potentially Pennsylvania, in play. That could offset losses Republicans might suffer among Latino voters, forcing the Democratic nominee to overperform significantly among the smaller proportion of nonwhite voters.Now let's consider a Sanders–Trump contest. Would Sanders offset some of Trump's appeal to working class and non-ethnic voters? Available polling, though early, says yes. In other words, Sanders, who is already (and falsely, in my view) being accused by both the media and Clinton campaign of running a "too white" campaign, could well outperform Clinton in that demographic, and in fact, steal those voters back from the Trump campaign.
How will we know? It will, I think, come down to this — Who is more believable on trade? Who is more credible as an anti-NAFTA, anti-TPP candidate among non-racist independents of any ethnicity? Given Sanders' consistent opposition, even hatred, of these job-killing trade deals, and his proven ability to stay on-topic despite distractions, he could easily outperform Clinton with working class voters, ethnic and non-ethnic alike. (Especially in debates. We've touched briefly on the debate problem Clinton may have with Trump. On trade I think Trump would be entirely credible with working class voters, those who don't listen past the words, and Clinton uniquely vulnerable. More on that separately.)
On the other hand, could Sanders attract and keep Clinton-preferring ethnic voters in a contest against Trump, since we know he would keep his own not-small portion of this population? That's a hypothetical and good data isn't in on his success in contests outside of the South — in states, in other words, a Democrat could actually win in the general election. But it's very hard to imagine any ethnic voter staying home in a contest featuring Donald Trump as a potential president.
Which leaves us with this thought. If a Trump candidacy could lower Democratic turnout for either Democratic candidate, what would be the effect on persuadable — and economically struggling — independents of a Clinton candidacy vs. a Sanders candidacy? In other words, for whom would a lower turnout be more damaging?
We clearly need more data; stories like this, about party-switching in Massachusetts, are only anecdotal. Still, if I had to bet, I think I see a favorite for my money. Will the Party see it this way as well? Will they try to find out?
(Blue America has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. If you'd like to help out, go here. If you'd like to "phone-bank for Bernie," go here. You can volunteer in other ways by going here. And thanks!)