Begley: The Psychology of Voter Turnout

The recession is likely to dampen turnout this midterm election, say experts. Logan Mock-Bunting / Getty Images

For Democrats hoping to pull off the electoral equivalent of an interception at the goal line with one second left in the game, the primaries were a rude awakening—not because of who won, but because of who voted. To prevent a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, Democrats need to mobilize most of the millions of voters who put Barack Obama in the White House. But of the 33.8 million people who voted in the primaries this year, most were Republicans, with a vote advantage of 3.8 million. The last time Republican turnout in midterm primaries exceeded Democratic turnout was 1930. And the last time a smaller fraction of age-eligible Democrats (8.2 percent) turned out for midterm primaries was … never: 2010 beat the previous record-low year of 2006, when only 9 percent of Democrats came out to choose their party’s midterm standard bearers.

political-upsets-clinton Photos: The 10 Biggest Political Upsets in Recent American History Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Those numbers, from American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, bode ill for Democrats’ hopes. The low primary turnout shows that 2008’s marginal voters (as scientists call those who vote only rarely) and first-time voters, who netted the Democrats 21 House seats and eight Senate seats, are sitting this one out. Although the historic Republican turnout edge in this year’s primaries was partly due to the fact that more GOP races than Democratic ones were competitive, “it was also because the Republicans smell victory, which boosts turnout,” says American’s Curtis Gans. That suggests GOP voters will be energized for Nov. 2 as well: just as people wanted to be part of history in 2008, which had a near-record turnout of 61.7 percent, so Republicans and Tea Partiers want to make history this year.

Also working for the GOP is that the recession is likely to dampen participation. That’s an oddity, because in bad economic times overall turnout usually rises “because people are riled up or fearful, and want to take it out on the party in power,” says Gans. But the recession has been so severe and so prolonged, he says, “that I’m less sure we’ll see an increase in turnout this time.” That will favor the GOP because higher- or lower-than-average turnout reflects whether marginal voters show up or stay home. Habitual voters tend to be those with higher incomes and more education, factors that predict turnout more strongly than any others, says political scientist Jan Leighley, also of American. Wealthier, more educated voters also tend to go Republican. They’ll vote in high numbers no matter what.

The low turnout that Gans and many other experts expect would therefore mean that marginal voters—who voted Democratic in 2008—don’t come out. Indeed, a new Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 56 percent of people who voted for Obama describe themselves as “very interested” in the midterms, a reflection of how dejected many marginal voters feel about the state of the nation—or about their own situation. The most marginal of marginal voters are 18- to 24-year-olds, who voted 2 to 1 for Obama, says political scientist Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Their turnout is almost certain to fall for two reasons. First, this demographic has historically been the least likely to vote in midterms. Second, the issues that energized new voters in 2008—opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantánamo—haven’t been resolved completely by the man they put in the White House. “Probably more than any other voters, the millennials feel disappointed by Obama,” says Gans. “The significant change they thought they were voting for hasn’t happened. They don’t believe anyone will get us out of these messes, so their turnout will be low”—bad news for Democrats.

The party still has some plays it can run, however. The stepped-up offensive in recent weeks, including both Obamas hitting the campaign trail, has energized African-Americans, who voted in record numbers in 2008 and might be easier to mobilize than young voters are. The Democrats have traditionally had an effective get-out-the-vote ground game, and studies show that the most effective way to mobilize voters is through personal appeals—not robocalls. A campaign worker calling or knocking on your door and appealing to your sense of civic duty can raise turnout by 6 to 10 percentage points, notes political scientist David Nickerson of the University of Notre Dame. (An experiment at Yale found that if you tell people their decision to vote will be publicized to friends and neighbors, turnout rises substantially.) Simply asking potential voters what time they intend to vote, where they’ll be, and what they’ll be doing beforehand also boosts turnout—by as much as 9 percent, finds Nickerson.

Negative ads can also increase turnout among Democratic-leaning marginal voters. Contrary to the belief that nasty campaigns deter the electorate, says political scientist Paul Freedman of the University of Virginia, negative ads increase turnout because they tend to be packed with information (accurate or not) on an opponent’s positions and past. “When voters feel more informed, they’re more likely to vote,” says Freedman. Negative ads also typically incite anger or anxiety, both of which stimulate attention and engagement—and, thus, turnout.

Finally, there’s the weather. Rain reduces turnout by almost 1 percent per inch, found a 2007 paper, and helps Republicans: downpours deter turnout among marginal, Democratic-leaning voters more than among committed (high-income, highly educated) GOP voters. Democrats should pray for coast-to-coast sunshine.

Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of  Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

Join the Discussion