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AU Prof: Much-Hyped Voter Turnout Fails to Materialize

Despite lofty predictions by some academics, pundits, and practitioners that voter turnout would reach levels not seen since the turn of the last century, the percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots in the 2008 presidential election stayed at virtually the same relatively high level as it reached in the polarized election of 2004.

According to a report and turnout projection released today by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) and based, in part, on nearly final but unofficial vote tabulations as compiled by the Associated Press as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 5, the percentage of Americans who cast ballots for president in this year’s presidential election will reach between 126.5 million and 128.5 million when all votes have been counted by early next month. 

If this prediction proves accurate, turnout would be at either exactly the same level as in 2004 or, at most, one percentage point higher (or between 60.7 percent and 61.7 percent). If the rate of voting exceeds 61.0 percent of eligibles, turnout will have been the highest since 1964. This projection is based on the 121.5 million tabulated votes compiled by the Associated Press plus some estimate—partially based on experience with post-election vote counting in previous elections and partially based on factors specific to this election, most notably the spread of balloting prior to Election Day—on how many ballots are still to be counted.

A downturn in the number and percentage of Republican voters going to the polls seemed to be the primary explanation for the lower than predicted turnout. The percentage of eligible citizens voting Republican declined to 28.7 percent down 1.3 percentage points from 2004. Democratic turnout increased by 2.6 percentage points from 28.7 percent of eligibles to 31.3 percent. It was the seventh straight increase in the Democratic share of the eligible vote since the party’s share dropped to 22.7 percent of eligibles in 1980.

Of the 47 states and the District of Columbia included in this report, turnout was up in only 22 states and D.C.  (Because of the extensive uncounted no excuse absentee balloting in Alaska and California and all-mail voting in Oregon and most of the state of Washington, those states are not included in this report.) 

“Many people were fooled (including this student of politics although less so than many others) by this year’s increase in registration (more than 10 million added to the rolls), citizens’ willingness to stand for hours even in inclement weather to vote early, the likely rise in youth and African American voting, and the extensive grassroots organizing network of the Obama campaign into believing that turnout would be substantially higher than in 2004,” said Curtis Gans, CSAE’s director. “But we failed to realize that the registration increase was driven by Democratic and independent registration and that the long lines at the polls were mostly populated by Democrats.”

Gans attributed the GOP downturn to three factors: 1) John McCain’s efforts to unite the differing factions in the Republican Party by the nomination of Governor Sarah Palin as vice-presidential nominee was a singular failure. By election time many culturally conservative Republicans still did not see him as one of their own and stayed home, while moderate Republicans saw the nomination of Palin reckless and worried about McCain’s steadiness. 2) As events moved towards Election Day, there was a growing perception of a Democratic landslide, discouraging GOP voters. 3) The 2008 election was a mirror image of the 2004 election.  In the 2004 election, the enthusiasm level was on the Republican side. By Election Day, Democratic voters were not motivated by their candidate but rather by opposition to President Bush, while Republican voters had a much greater liking for their standard bearer. In 2008 and according to polls from several sources, by at least 20 percentage points, Obama enjoyed stronger allegiance than McCain. Even the best get-out-the-vote activities tend to be as successful as the affirmative emotional context in which they are working. In 2004, that context favored the GOP. In 2008, it favored the Democrats.

“In the end, this election was driven by deep economic concerns and the prevailing emotional climate,” Gans said. “While there probably has not been, since 1932, the confluence of factors that underlay this election—90 percent of the American people seeing the nation on the wrong track, 75 percent disapproving of the president’s performance, more than 80 percent perceiving a recession and feeling that things will get worse, and the reality of growing economic distress—on one level this election was typical. When economic conditions go bad, the party in the White House gets blamed and they lose.”