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Voter Turnout and the Prospects for the Republican Party

Discussions of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump tend to focus on her own limitations as a candidate and the failure of her campaign in a handful of states on the Electoral College map that proved pivotal. That’s all true enough. But there’s another side to the story as well. When comparing Clinton’s electoral performance to Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012, we should note the uniqueness of those elections and Obama’s exceptional electoral appeal. Almost no Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 could have equaled Obama’s performance among key constituencies, even if that candidate did not share Clinton’s disabilities. And this means there is some good news going forward for Republicans, and some not so good news.

Until Obama’s election, no Democratic presidential candidate received a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976. And he received a scant 50.1 percent of the popular vote. We need to go back to 1964 to see a solid Democratic presidential vote in Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater. Bill Clinton never received a majority of the popular vote (although, to be sure, Ross Perot shared the ballot with the Republican candidate in both elections).

The striking news about Clinton’s vote in 2016 is, despite receiving a greater share of the popular vote than Trump (although still less than a majority), almost one in five voters who supported Obama in 2012 failed to vote for Clinton in 2016. Data show that among voters who voted for Obama in 2012, nine percent voted for Trump in 2016, seven percent did not vote at all, and three percent voted for a third-party candidate. To be sure, the defection of many suburban Romney supporters to Clinton offset some of the defection of Obama voters from Clinton, but not enough in the critical Electoral College states that swung the election to Trump.

While 2016 saw the highest voter turnout ever in absolute numbers, as a percentage of adult citizens 2008 still remains the highest turnout for a presidential election in over a generation. (One needs to go back to 1968 to see a higher percentage turnout in a presidential election.)

But the raw numbers aren’t what’s important. Changes in the composition of who turned out tells the important story. Obama motivated turnout among African Americans and supportive youth at disproportionately high levels relative to earlier elections.

Critically, black voters turned out for Obama at extremely high rates relative to previous elections. The percentage of black turnout equaled white turnout in 2008, and exceeded it in 2012. Black turnout decreased around five percent in 2016 relative to the previous two elections. But in decreasing, black turnout simply returned to average levels in elections before Obama was on the ballot. The reversion to the mean at least hints that 2008 and 2012 represent a unique Obama effect; an effect that any Democratic candidate would have difficulty replicating in 2016.

Similarly, while a higher percentage of youth voted in 2016, Clinton’s received a smaller share of the youth vote than Obama did.

Democrats recognize that the path to victory lies in replicating Obama’s turnout rates. Yet Obama was able to motivate liberal constituencies without scaring off (too many) of the more moderate Democrats. Clinton appealed to more moderate voters (including a fair number of 2012 Romney voters), but was unable sufficiently to motivate the extreme of the distribution relative to Obama.

This is partly good news for the Republicans. Obama aside, since 1964, Democrats have won the presidency only with southern Democrats at the top of the ticket. Many Romney voters, presumably, will return to the Republican fold if, after experiencing Trump’s presidency, they see Trump as less threatening than they perceived him to be relative to Clinton in 2016, or if Republicans revert to nominating more ordinary candidates for the presidency (whether in two years or in six years).

At the same time, the Obama to Trump voters constitute an electoral wild card. While these voters tended to be among the most conservative voters supporting Obama, they aren’t normal ideological voters. Rather, they tend to value shaking things up over ideology. Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Trump in 2016. As such, there’s no reason Republicans should expect these voters to continue supporting Republican presidential candidates when Trump is not on the ballot. (And perhaps more disconcertingly for the GOP in 2018, there’s no reason to expect these voters naturally to support the normal run of Republican congressional candidates.)

Further, the Obama to Trump voters were almost surely critical for Trump’s wins in the pivotal states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. These states had not gone Republican in presidential elections since the 1980s. So even if 2008 and 2012 turnout levels represent a unique Obama effect, it’s not all rosy for Republicans in the future. Nonetheless, the significant defections of Obama supporters from Clinton in 2016 suggest the central tendency of the last generation or so of presidential elections in the U.S. still retains some potency.

Reader Discussion

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on March 14, 2018 at 11:21:09 am

Obama to Trump voters constitute an electoral wild card. While these voters tended to be among the most conservative voters supporting Obama, they aren’t normal ideological voters. Rather, they tend to value shaking things up….

'

As Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) observed, “I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul-searching, I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron [Paul] and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas. They were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class.”

I ponder the weird spectacle of presidential hopefuls traveling the country, kissing babies, as if that behavior in any way demonstrated fitness for office. The moral seems to be that high-information voters are already fairly committed to their candidates, and thus elections are almost always decided by low-information voters who care about stuff like baby-kissing. So that’s what politicians do.

All politicians have an appeal that is some part form and some part substance; substance is not 100% of the appeal. I liked Obama’s policy proposals, but I don’t doubt that his novelty as the first black man to have a viable shot at becoming president was a big factor in attracting voters (and, ok also repelling voters) in 2008. In short, he didn’t win solely on the basis of his substance.

Fast forward eight years and we get Trump—a guy whose appeal strikes me as rather heavily weighted toward form rather than substance. And voters dug it—or, at least, a lot of them did.

What does this portend for the future?

Why shouldn’t the Democrats run Oprah? Or Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson? Continue to get the votes of the partisan die-hards, plus get the votes of those hard-to-motivate black voters, plus the people who just like novelty and celebrity?

Well, people who are concerned about having a competent chief executive at the helm during an emergency might have concerns. But if the choice is between those guys or Trump—hell, I’d rather pick a person at random to be in charge during an emergency than rely on the impetuous (and potentially compromised) Mr. Trump. So I’m not persuaded that national security concerns would cost a Dwayne Johnson campaign many votes.

In his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books, Douglas Adams postulated a universe in which democracy had evolved to its logical conclusion: Only the most outrageous people could get elected, and their chief purpose was to distract the public from those who were actually running things. This is the President-as-Rodeo-Clown concept.

I wonder if the future has arrived.

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nobody.really
on March 14, 2018 at 12:05:27 pm

"I wonder if the future has arrived."

Uhhh! Is that BECAUSE of " those who were actually running things."

Also, you assume that low information voters are NOT the die hard partisans. Au contraire, mon ami, I believe that a very credible case can be made that IT IS precisely the low-information voters who are the "die-hards" - think all of the young SJW's with all their inane, idiotic ideas about - well, everything - and then consider which party invariably garners their votes.
And yep, their are low-info types on the GOP side as well but I would suspect that their numbers are somewhat smaller than the die-hard SJW dem's.

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gabe
on March 14, 2018 at 13:23:37 pm

I wasn't aware that this site was a mouthpiece for the Republican Party--but I guess you libertarians were co-opted long ego. I have yet to see anyone here complain about the deficit. But I guess when Republicans shovel money toward the rich, it's *good*.

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excessivelyperky
on March 14, 2018 at 13:35:11 pm

"But I guess when Republicans shovel money toward the rich, it’s *good*."

ONLY if one is rich!!!!

Then again, I DO NOT recall any Dems complaining when the Big Zero, oops, I mean the Big "O"bama blew the lid off the (alleged" deficit ceiling.

Face it - neither party has any interest in curbing the debt - they both seek to *provide* the wonders and benefits of modern "rational / scientific" government to we poor deplorable buggers. and aren't we supposed to be grateful for that! Of course, one of the WONDERS of said scientific government is the trick of conjuring money out of thin air. I suspect that may be why they wish to limit carbon emissions. We wouldn't want our money supply to be tarnished - now would we?

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gabe
on March 17, 2018 at 21:08:37 pm

But the Republicans kept saying how bad his deficits were, and how evil it was that he dared to tax the rich.

So of course they cut taxes for the rich and shovel billions of dollars their way. That'll show people!

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excessivelyperky
on March 18, 2018 at 19:28:46 pm

My wife will be happy to hear this: "they cut taxes for the rich and shovel billions of dollars their way."

I guess since we received a tax cut, THEREFORE, WE must BE RICH.

I like that kind of logic. Now can you please tell me when I can buy a rolls royce with all these billions I am going to get!

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excessively-pesky
on July 04, 2018 at 11:52:16 am

I`m Really late on my reply, but maybe someone will read my thoughts. I have a bit of a problem with the stereo typing of The Republicans being either Rich or under-educated.I am neither. Just a guy sick of the same `ole politics.
POTUS Trump has been saving money for the U.S. by either ending un-gratified countries receiving U.S. billions, Trying to get us better tariff deals and not letting the U.S. take the losing end of Every piece of Goods that cross our borders.
(I compare our trade deficits to lending $20 to your friend,but he only pays you back $15.Then you do it again and again and again.) so it is a failing deal you and your friend are having. Then when you say hey you know what? I don`t want to lend you $20 anymore if you can`t be fair and at least pay me even, he gets mad because you`ve allowed your self to be taken for so long and he is used to it.Also he has already addressed the high prices on hundreds of products in the U.S. Just think about that I digress, except to say I think POTUS Trump will be the first President to reverse some of the Nat`l Debt. Don`t listen to the Media folks use your own mind and what is good for you and your family, all the other crap is just that- poop!

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Matt Stock

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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