Published October 23, 2012
“Romney Surges to Tie Obama” screams a Wall Street Journal headline. Republicans are giddy with excitement. Can it be? After months of trailing the likable President Obama, could Mitt Romney be about to pull off the rare defeat of an incumbent? It may all come down to who turns up to vote on Election Day.
The AFL-CIO is gearing up to get out the vote, pulling in more than 128,000 volunteers who will knock on doors, man the phone banks and blanket the countryside with flyers. The NAACP, the American Legion, the American Federation of Teachers, the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood – everyone is pushing Americans to cast a ballot.
Even so, barely a majority of Americans will likely vote on November 6. In 2008, 57% of our voting-age population turned out – and that was the highest figure since 1968. It’s not an impressive showing for the world’s most successful democracy. By comparison, Belgium enjoys voter participation of 86%, while France logs in at 77%.
Does it matter? Yes, turnout will certainly matter to President Obama. Even though political savants will claim that, based on a slew of studies looking at past presidential contests, turnout does not decide the outcome, the president’s chances may well hinge on how many Americans take advantage of democracy’s greatest privilege.
Historically, analyses of presidential elections have found that the results would not have varied much even if everyone in the country cast a ballot. In the words of one respected team of researchers – political scientists Highton and Wolfinger -- “Simply put, voters differ minimally from all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.”
This year, that may not be true. Where voters have clashed with non-voters in the past is on issues of economic redistribution. In 1992, academics Highton and Wolfinger found, voters were measurably more conservative than the population as a whole about whether “it is important for the government to provide many more services [in areas such as health and education] even if it means an increase in spending.” Similarly, they found that “Employment preferences for blacks were more popular among the entire sample, 21 percent of whom supported this policy, compared to 17 percent of voters.”
The divide is not surprising. The left-leaning organization Fair Vote, which advocates for broader voter participation, cites studies that “found that 86% of people with incomes above $75,000 claim to have voted in presidential elections as compared with only 52% of people with incomes under $15,000.” It is likely that high earners will be less enthusiastic about redistributing the spoils of their efforts than those at the bottom (and receiving) end of the income spectrum.
Given that Mr. Obama’s sole policy in this campaign has been “making the wealthy pay their fair share,” he has to hope for a larger than normal turnout. And for that, he must motivate voters. Fair Vote says turnout will depend on “voter perceptions of the importance of the choice, how close the election is, and how much different potential outcomes will affect their lives.”
The Obama campaign seems to buy this approach. In his convention speech, the president warned that in the next four years “big decisions will be made in Washington on jobs, the economy, taxes and deficits, energy, education, war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and on our children’s lives for decades to come.” He also claimed that voters “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.”
The Obama campaign hopes these scare tactics will boost turnout, and they may prove right. In the latest WSJ/NBC poll, 55% of those asked said the election will mean “a great deal” to them; that’s quite a jump from the 45% who responded similarly in 2004. Perceptions that the race is close – a perception furthered by recent polls – may also help. This is problematic for Governor Romney. On the other hand, motivation also derives from enthusiasm for a given candidate. Romney’s performances in the debates have ramped up support for the GOP contender, while Mr. Obama’s four-year record leaves his followers uninspired.
The most striking evidence of the latter is a recent study out from the Harvard Institute of Politics, which surveyed young people. The youth vote was powerful in electing President Obama – not because so many voted, as popular wisdom has it, but because the president won young votes by the highest margin (34 percentage points) of any Democrat candidate in the past 30 years, according to the Washington Post. A recent Pew survey shows that 63% of young voters intend to vote; that compares with 72% four years ago. But young Romney supporters seem more determined to cast a ballot; 65% say they will vote, as opposed to 55% of those in Obama’s corner.
The recent WSJ/NBC poll delivered more bad news for the president. The percentage of Democrats who “express high interest” in the election is running at about 75% -- down from nearly 90% in 2008. By contrast, some 85% of Republicans are charged up, close to the 2008 level.
President Obama will hope for a high turnout, with lower-income folks swelling the electorate. However, the politicos may be right. How many vote on November 6 may not matter; who votes, though, will make all the difference. President Obama may find that running against Governor Romney does not inspire the faithful. On the other hand, running on his dismal record was never an option.