Posted in Politics

Voter Turnout Predictions

Nate Silver and Cass Sunstein predict that there will be low voter turnout this year. Sunstein estimates that only a bit over half the voting-age population will cast a ballot this year. There are certainly some compelling arguments for Sunstein and Silver’s theory. Trump’s ground game deficit, the decreasing competitiveness of the race, and the lack of enthusiasm among voters are all factors that point to a low-turnout election.

But they are wrong.

Voter turnout will be high this year. That is not to say that voter turnout will be abnormally high. In the US, we consistently see lower levels of turnout than in other established democracies. That won’t change. That said, turnout will increase above the 2012 rate of just under 55 percent of the voting-age population. It may beat the 2004 rate of nearly 57 percent or even match the 58 percent turnout from 2008.


First, I disagree with Silver’s pronouncement that a lopsided ground game will drastically reduce turnout. He is, of course, right that Trump’s campaign doesn’t have many boots on the ground. That doesn’t mean that there will be low turnout. In 2004, according to Sasha Issenberg, the Democrat’s ground game wasn’t nearly as effective as the Republican’s. By 2012, the Republican’s ground game was unimpressive compared to Obama’s mobilization machine. Both years had turnout above what Sunstein predicts for this year. More to the point, a recent Pew Research poll shows that nearly half of registered voters have received some direct contact from one of the two major campaigns. These voters are equally likely to be contacted by Clinton as by Trump. As Alan Gerber and Donald Green note in their comprehensive 2000 study, canvassing is the best way to mobilize voters, but direct mail and phone calls can be effective, too. In other words, any type of contact increases turnout.

Still, Trump’s ground game and face-to-face contact with voters are weak, even compared with Kerry’s and Romney’s. Trump is banking on impersonal contact such as robocalls and non-contact methods like free media to mobilize voters. Media coverage—as well as the angry speeches that drive the coverage—can increase turnout (see below).

Additionally, Clinton’s strong ground game will certainly make up for Trump’s weak one. I myself have received calls and emails asking me to get on a bus and spend my weekends knocking on doors in Pennsylvania. Those buses are full. Clinton’s impressive ground game will help bolster turnout.

Second, voters don’t necessarily think the race is decreasing in competitiveness. A Pew Research poll shows that nearly 70 percent of voters anticipate that the election will be close. This is important because closeness is a factor in turnout. As Steven Rosenstone and John Hansen point out, for example, voters are 1.6 percent more likely to turn out if they believe the race is competitive. If the race is truly close—not just perceived by some to be close—this effect nearly doubles. 

This year the race isn’t seeming that close, but the media likes to cover the horserace. As Silver himself pointed out, “Clinton coasts” doesn’t garner the ratings that “Clinton email scandal makes race tighten in last days of the election.” In this way, the media makes the race seem close and so the media increases turnout.

Third, the lack of enthusiasm—which Sunstein uses to mean both positive feelings toward a candidate and also to mean overall enthusiasm toward the election—isn’t the best determination of turnout. According to a 2011 paper by Nicholas Valentino and his colleagues, anger is a better predictor of voter turnout than enthusiasm. Trump certainly plays on the anger of white, working-class men. On the liberal side, there is anger about inequality and about the fact that the Republicans have nominated such a seemingly unqualified candidate.

It is, of course, difficult to gauge anger in an election, as polls generally don’t ask whether people are angry about a particular candidate or circumstance, but the media has done an adequate job capturing the anger that has permeated this election cycle. This anger will motivate people to vote, Valentino predicts.

Specifically, Sunstein mentions the lack of enthusiasm among voters under 35 years old. This demographic turned out for Obama in 2008, he says, but might not vote this year. In other words, he is getting at the much-maligned fact that millennials don’t turn out. This, however, isn’t necessarily true. As Russell Dalton notes, millennials are as involved in political life as earlier generations. Additionally, the youngest millennials—those who weren’t old enough to vote in 2008—are the most politically engaged group of young people in the past half century. In other words, don’t count millennials out.

Neither Sunstein nor Silver addresses the barrage of media coverage of the election. A mid-October ABC/Washington Post poll found that 94 percent of likely voters report following the election. At roughly the same period in 2012, it found similar levels of interest among 93 percent of likely voters following the election. According to John Aldrich’s rational choice turnout model, media coverage can decrease the cost of voting by providing voters with information about candidates and their positions. People are more likely to vote, he demonstrates, when costs are low. Given that interest in media coverage is high, it seems unlikely that turnout will drop.

While Silver and Sunstein make valid points, they fail to take into account key factors. Predicting voting behavior is, of course, difficult at best. Campaigns and scholars have devoted countless hours trying to unravel the mystery of why people vote—or as Henry Brady and his colleagues put it, why people don’t vote. Socioeconomic status, biological traits (race, age, etc.), personality traits, rational choice, and environmental factors (exposure to news media, for example), or some combination of these factors all influence the decision to vote. By looking only at select factors—contact, closeness, anger, and media coverage—I cannot say what individual voters will do or precisely why they will do it. I can, however, say with confidence that this year will not see a further dip in voter turnout. Furthermore, we will see higher turnout than we did in 2012.

(Remember when I said you should vote this year? Please do! Not only are the stakes high, the


Hi, I'm Mercedes. I'm a PhD candidate in politics and a trained pastry chef. I'm also an amateur photographer, hobby quilter, and all-around nutty girl living in the Big Apple.

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