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McDonald: Does Enthusiasm Portend High Turnout in 2010?

Topics: Gallup , Likely Voters , Nate Silver , Turnout

This guest contribution comes from Michael McDonald, an Associate Professor of Government and Politics in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As Nate Silver notes, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds that that 62% of registered voters say they are "more enthusiastic than usual about voting" in the upcoming midterm elections.

Nate focuses his attention on differential enthusiasm between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans appear more enthusiastic than Democrats, but enthusiasm among partisans of both stripes are at record levels in Gallup polling for a midterm election. I'd like to focus on a different question. What does this level of enthusiasm potentially tell us about voter participation in the 2010 November elections?

This level of enthusiasm at 62% is indeed the highest level of enthusiasm among registered voters in a midterm election since Gallup began asking this question in October, 1994. The next highest level was recorded at 49% in a June, 2006 poll, a difference of 13 percentage points.

2010-04-08-McDonald_image001.png

USA Today notes that this is "a level of engagement found during some presidential election years but never before in a midterm. " Indeed, this is the case. Looking back at the same question asked in presidential elections since 1996, enthusiasm peaked at 69% in June, 2004 and again at 69% in October, 2008. At a similar point in February, 2008, 63% of registered voters said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting in that election.

2010-04-08-McDonald_image002.png

The enthusiasm question appears to tap into underlying voting propensities. Voter turnout rates among those eligible to vote has been relatively stable in the 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006 midterm elections, as has the self-reported enthusiasm measure. In presidential elections, enthusiasm appears to be related to voter participation. Turnout rates have increased from a low point in 1996 to progressively higher levels in 2000, 2004, and 2008, along with the enthusiasm measure.

2010-04-08-McDonald-Turnout-Rates.png

If this high enthusiasm for congressional elections translates into similar voter turnout rates as recent presidential elections, this would be exceedingly rare. In the course of U.S. history, midterm turnout rates only exceeded presidential turnout rates at the time of the country's Founding, when Congress was the preeminent branch of government and when presidential elections were occasionally not contested or presidential electors were still occasionally selected by state governments. Over the past century, midterm turnout rates have been on average about 15 percentage points lower than contemporaneous presidential elections. History tells us that it is unlikely that the 2010 midterm turnout rate will equal recent presidential turnout rates of 60%+ of those eligible to vote.

Still, absent any knowledge about enthusiasm, we might expect that turnout rates would increase in 2010. The long term pattern has been for midterm election turnout rates to generally move with presidential elections. An increase in presidential turnout rates has occurred recently without a breakout to the upside for the midterm rates. Looking back to the 1960's, just by looking at the aggregate election data alone we might expect midterm turnout rates to rise near 50% in 2010.

Further tamping expectations down is that level of enthusiasm of 39% in the October 2000 survey is on par with the 41% in October, 1998 and the 41% in October, 2002, yet the turnout rate in that presidential election was still approximately 15 percentage points higher than either of these midterm elections. Indeed, the lowest level of enthusiasm of 17% was registered on the October, 1996 survey. The 1996 presidential turnout rate of 51.7% is a modern low, but it still easily exceeds any recent midterm election.

This disconnect may have something to do with the question wording. The question asked is, "Compared to previous elections, are you more enthusiastic than usual about voting, or less enthusiastic?" Note that the question elicits a respondent to refer back to previous elections as a comparison point. It may be that respondents are thinking about comparable midterm or presidential elections when answering the question, rather than a baseline enthusiasm that may be compared across different types of elections.

There is one further caveat to consider. The presidential data shows that it is possible that this enthusiasm may swiftly wane. In 2008, voters' enthusiasm in the primaries faded by summer, dropping from 63% in February to 48% in June, before peaking again at 69% in October as the election neared. The enthusiasm observed at this point in time may be a product of circumstances that may not be sustainable until November. Then again, even if enthusiasm wilts in the summer this does not mean it may not perk up again as November draws near.

At this point, the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the totality of the evidence is that turnout in 2010 will most likely exceed the 41.4% of 2006, and if these current conditions hold the turnout rate may come in just shy of 50%.

 

Comments
Ptolemy:

There's something wrong with the x-axis labels for the "Turnout Rates for Eligible Voters" chart. It starts at 1788, not 1898.

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Farleftandproud:

If the younger generations around the country, and at the state universities can come out and vote, and if people like Al Sharpton can organize well in the inner cities around the country, and the good feelings of 2008 can be revived by Obama during summer break and campaign season, Dems will do alright. I already know, 2010 will be a great Republican year, but if the younger voters can outnumber the old farts it will work out well for progressives.

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Farleftandproud:

Wish they could have compared voter turnout in 2000 to 2002 and 1992 and 1994 just to see what the difference was in percentage of people turning out by party.

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@Ptolemy: There is no error in the x-axis. I provided the entire series starting with 1789.

@Farledtandproud: The best information for what you want comes from the media's exit polls. But don't count on the youth vote in a midterm election.

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An addendum that occurs to me upon further reflection is that this enthusiasm question elicits a retrospective evaluation of ethusiasm in recent elections. Nate Silver frets that Democrats are less enthusiastic about voting, but they have outpaced Republican voter turnout in 2006 and 2008. The baseline "usual" for a Democrat may be relatively higher than the baseline "usual" for a Republican. The implication is that Democrats and Republicans may actually have relatively equal enthusiasm about voting.

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sjt22:

@ Michael

The title is incorrect on the last graph.

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Westwoodnc Westwoodnc:

We can't paint an accurate picture without including Independents in our analysis. They're either the largest or second-largest group of voters. In an R v. D world, the sheer numbers of D over R will negate any R gains, but in a climate where Independents are going wild for the GOP, this looks bad...for Obama.

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@stj22: Thanks for pointing that out. Now I understand Ptolemy's comment. Two sides to the same coin. The title is now fixed.

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Farleftandproud:

What works to get youth vote out is for progressive parents to make sure their kids vote and turnout, and I think this violence coming from the far right including religious extremists, and those opposed to health reform will anger the slightly more progressive under 30 group. They are more likely to support health reform than older voters. Likewise non-white voters under 30 may turn out in greater number because of the new militia right wing groups and some mainstream politicians who have included racism and anti-immigration in their agenda. I certainly think that in Virginia there will be good turnout from these groups due to the recent recognition of the confederacy from the Governor of Virginia.

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Aaron_in_TX:

Westwood,

The independent vote is a whole different animal, requiring its own anaylsis.

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irs levy:

i read 1 comment from farleftandproud wrote about "violence" by the far right extremist...there isnt any violence...the "tea party movement (TAXED TOOOOOOOOOO MUCH) are fiscal conservatives...its easy, stop the spending, give people back their money and adhere to the constitution...pretty simple...i used to be "frleftand proud" myself...but i really dont like having gov't dictate to me what i "need to buy".

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3 more weeks and we shall see what "voter enthusiasm" is all about...people in america feel an urgent sense to "get this ship right".

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3 more weeks and we shall see what "voter enthusiasm" is all about...people in america feel an urgent sense to "get this ship right".

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