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Study: African-Americans, Fear & Youth Propel Highest Turnout Since 1960

Possible Pro-Democratic Realignment, GOP Disaster

A major surge in African-American voting, polling data showing 90 percent of citizens seeing the nation on the wrong track, fear of a deep recession with personal implications, and the organizing efforts of college-educated youth, all conspired to produce both a 2008 Obama victory and the highest general election voter turnout since 1960.

According to a report, based on final and official returns from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, released today by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE):

  • In all, 131,257,542 Americans voted for president in 2008, nine million more than cast their ballots in 2004 (against only a 6.5 million increase in eligible population).
  • The turnout level was 63 percent of eligibles, a 2.4 percentage point increase over 2004 and the highest percentage to turn out since 64.8 percent voted for president in 1960. It was the third highest turnout since women were given the right to vote in 1920.
  • Overall turnout increased in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The greatest turnout increases occurred in the District of Columbia (13 percentage points), followed by North Carolina (10.3), Georgia (7.6), South Carolina (7.4), Virginia (7.1), Colorado (6.3), Mississippi (5.9), Alabama (5.5) and Indiana (5.2).
  • Overall turnout records were set in Alabama, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
  • Democratic turnout, as measured by their share of the aggregate vote for U.S. House of Representatives (see note 4), increased by 5.4 percentage points to 31.6 percent of the eligible vote, their highest share of the vote since 33.4 percent voted Democratic in 1964 and the largest year-to-year increase in Democratic turnout since women were enfranchised in1920. Democratic turnout increased in 46 states and the District of Columbia and declined in only four.

“Given where the enormous rise in Democratic turnout and where those turnout increases occurred—all, with the exception of Colorado, in states (and the District of Columbia) with a large percentage of African-Americans—it is virtually certain that African-Americans were a major factor in Democratic turnout increase and Democratic victories in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia,” said Curtis Gans, CSAE’s director. “It is also virtually certain that when the Census Bureau comes out with its biennial survey on reported registration and voting, African-American turnout rates will have exceeded white turnout rates for the first time ever.”

Republican turnout declined by three percentage points to 25 percent of the electorate. The six point advantage the Democrats had in the eligible vote was the largest since the Lyndon Johnson landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964—8.8 percentage points.  Republican turnout declined in 44 states and the District of Columbia and increased in only six—none by a greater amount than two percentage points.

“The decline in Republican turnout was the principal reason that overall voting rates did not reach record proportions or ‘the highest since 1908’ as some academics predicted,” Gans said. 

“It is likely that GOP voting decline started at the top of the ticket—with some of the culturally conservative Republicans not seeing McCain as one of their own while moderates were appalled by the selection of Gov. Palin, McCain’s hawkish view on foreign policy and his tendency, at least in the campaign, to shoot from the lip. A portion of GOP registrants also likely perceived, as the campaign wound down, a Democratic landslide which made some discouraged and demobilized.

“It is also possible that some ‘Reagan Democrats,’ those who shared Democratic economic concerns but were driven to the GOP by 1970s Democratic excesses and cultural issues, didn’t vote. In these times, cultural issues took a back seat to economic concerns, but some who might have come back to the Democratic fold probably didn’t vote—some because of racial concerns but others by the perception of elitism which had been driven home by Sen. Clinton and joined by Sen. McCain, following Obama’s off-hand and ill-thought-out ‘bitter remarks’ in San Francisco, during the primary season,” Gans said.