This summer (Un)Conventional Wisdom will be publishing profiles for each of the 50 states, giving shorthand histories of their roles in modern presidential politics. Today we’ll take a bird’s-eye view of the entire American electorate over the past century or so.
We sometimes think presidential elections are won by swaying opinion, much like a jury trial or the (idealized) process of voting on legislation in Congress. But many elections are decided not by what people think, but by which people vote. Especially in recent elections, the game has been to motivate citizens who are predisposed toward your candidate or party to actually cast ballots, as opposed to making effective arguments to the shrinking number of truly independent voters.
Indeed, political scientists Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster have just posted more evidence that “party loyalty and straight-ticket voting” are stronger than at any time since at least 1952, even as more Americans call themselves independent. The reason for this paradox: “the rise of negative partisanship. A growing number of Americans have been voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party.”
It’s widely assumed that the Democrats have a tougher time getting their supporters—or, at least, their fellow Republican-haters—out to vote. The party tends to be more popular among younger voters, immigrants, the childless, and people who are less rooted in their communities (and, not coincidentally, are less likely to be regular churchgoers).
So Democrats are more likely to champion easier access to the polls—in the form of easy and simple voter registration laws, and opportunities for early or mail-in voting—and to oppose voter ID laws that can make it more difficult for even eligible voters to cast ballots. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for 2016, is already making voter access a cornerstone of her campaign, and this week she is proposing that every state offer an early voting period of at least 20 days.
But the Republicans also need to get new people to the polls. It’s not just because they need to replace supporters who have died off (that morbid topic is explored here). Regardless of turnout rates, the American electorate expands almost every four years, thanks to new adults and new citizens. Both parties are in a constant battle to win the allegiance people just starting to get interested in politics. (There’s a temptation to make an analogy to cars, beers, and brand loyalty, but let’s let Mad Men rest in piece for a few months.)
The chart below depicts the near-steady rise in the size of the American electorate since 1900. In the last presidential race, 129.2 million Americans cast ballots. That’s a near-doubling of the 68.8 million who voted in the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, and that was a near-doubling of the 36.8 million who voted in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover beat Democrat Al Smith (the first Catholic nominee of a major party).
Since 1900, there have been only five presidential elections in which fewer votes were cast than in the previous election, and all favored the incumbent party: 1904 (when Republican Teddy Roosevelt was re-elected), 1944 (when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected), 1988 (when George H.W. Bush kept the White House for the Republicans), 1996 (when Democrat Bill Clinton was re-elected), and 2012 (when Democrat Barack Obama was re-elected).
To put it another way, neither party has ever captured the White House during that time without an increase in voter turnout.
This is notable because Democrats often impute a “voter suppression” strategy to the GOP. They warn that voter ID laws, the curtailment of early voting hours, and a shortage of polling sites and voting machines in urban areas are all part of a plan to lower turnout in traditionally Democratic areas. Even if this plan exists, it may not be an effective long-range strategy. There is some evidence that overt attempts to lower turnout can backfire, giving voters the motivation to do whatever it takes to cast a ballot.
It’s a safer bet to get more people to the polls. The Republican Party has won the popular vote just once over the past six elections, but that election saw the biggest jump in turnout: an additional 17 million people voted in 2004, when George W. Bush won election. (The electorate swelled by 9 million in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected.) Evangelical Christian groups claimed much of the credit for the 2004 increase, especially in states where bans on same-sex marriage were on the ballot. Polls are inconclusive on this point, but Bush’s confident conservatism may have been a factor. Certainly the high interest in that race—Michael Barone wrote that Bush attracted both “hearty approval and vitriolic opposition”—turned out well for Republicans. In contrast, voter apathy and lower turnout didn’t help the party when it nominated Bob Dole in 1996 or Mitt Romney in 2012. (Nor did it help the Democrats and Michael Dukakis in 1988.)
History doesn’t guarantee anything, and it’s conceivable that a low turnout in next year’s election could result in a regime change. That may be the thinking behind ads from conservative groups attacking Hillary Clinton from the left, for being too cozy with Wall Street and not vigilant enough against the Keystone XL pipeline. The head of one such group is quoted in the New York Times as hoping the attacks will lead to “diminished turnout” among Democrats next year.
But the 2004 result suggests that won’t be enough, and the Republicans would be better off next year with a candidate who can build voter enthusiasm, as opposed to a “paperweight candidate”—someone close at hand who can merely keep the party’s 2012 voters from blowing away. This theory is probably not helpful to Jeb Bush.
The chart below tracks the growth of Democratic and Republican votes in presidential elections since 1900. Note the “twin peaks” for the Republicans formed by the landslide wins of Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, with a valley formed by Democrat Jimmy Carter’s post-Watergate, fluky single win in 1976. After bottoming out with Carter’s loss in 1980, the Democrats increased their total vote seven consecutive times before dipping with Obama’s re-election in 2012. The Republican vote has been a bit more volatile, plunging in 1992 (when independent Ross Perot did particularly well in normally Republican states) and finally passing Ronald Reagan’s benchmark in 2004.