Turnout among all groups tends to rise and fall together.

Robert Griffin | September 4, 2020

The lead that former vice president Joe Biden has held over President Trump since he became the presumptive Democratic nominee — confirmed this past week in a number of high-quality post-convention polls — has been almost shockingly stable, given the pandemic, the economic crisis and one of the broadest protest movements in living memory. In light of that advantage, some have argued that the Trump campaign’s “hopes rest on boosting white working-class turnout,” as the Wall Street Journal put it recently. Sarah Isgur, a staff writer for the Dispatch, made a similar case on Twitter: “Assume Trump has a hard ceiling at 35%,” she wrote, referring to his support level among voters, “if he can shift turnout in that group from 60% in 2016 to 70% in 2020 (a VERY hard thing to do) then he wins this thing.” Isgur added that commenters who said the Republican National Convention wouldn’t change anyone’s mind missed the point, because it was all about the base.

Turnout-centric strategies have become the go-to move for underdog campaigns: Despite the polls, the argument goes, our candidate has a chance if a particular group turns out in droves. During the Democratic primary race, for example, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) claimed that an unprecedented wave of young and working-class voters would sweep their man to victory — a deluge that did not materialize. In fact, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak, the share of voters under 30 actually dropped in 11 of the 12 early primary and caucus states.

On some level, the frequent appeals to this strategy are understandable. The electorate is more polarized than it used to be, and there are indeed fewer swing voters. One study found that swing voters regularly constituted more than 10 percent of the electorate before 1980 but made up as little as 5 percent in 2012. This has led many commentators to understand elections as battles between two camps with obdurate loyalties.

But there are issues with the stimulate-the-base theory of electoral success. At the very least, it’s hard to pull off in practice. Rigorous analysis of get-out-the-vote efforts suggests that campaign initiatives to increase turnout tend to produce relatively small effects. In the book “Get Out the Vote,” for example, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, political scientists at Columbia University and Yale University, examine more than 50 door-to-door canvassing experiments and find that the average effect was only a 4 percent increase in the likelihood of voting — meaning that every 25 contacts resulted in just about one additional vote. If a campaign is able to contact half or a quarter of the people it intends to reach — a reasonably high success rate — then the effective rate of return is really closer to one additional vote for every 50 or 100 attempted contacts. In short, a pretty small effect.

Beyond campaign efforts, history tells us that it is unusual to see a substantial increase in turnout for just one specific group. Voters live in shared political environments that shape perceptions about an election’s importance. As such, it’s more common to see turnouts among different groups rise and fall together.

Take the 2016 election. While the turnout rate of White voters without college degrees did go up by about three percentage points compared with 2012 — and this group disproportionately supported Trump — the increase was not far from the two-percentage-point rise among Hispanic, Asian and White college-educated voters. That’s according to an analysis by me and my former colleagues at the Center for American Progress, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, that synthesized county-level election results as well as data from the American Communities Survey and the Current Population Survey. (Turnout did decline among Black Americans in 2016, but that was both predictable and historically unusual, given that the point of comparison was 2012, when the reelection of the first Black president was at stake.)

In addition to all that, the theories underpinning turnout-based strategies tend to make an illogical leap. Yes, there are fewer swing voters these days — but that doesn’t mean they no longer matter.

Again, the 2016 presidential election makes this clear. Scholarly analysis of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study suggests that millions of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 switched in 2016 — including 6 million who voted for Trump and 2.3 million who supported a third-party candidate. These two groups were far larger than the 4.4 million Obama voters who didn’t cast ballots in 2016. Additional analysis by Nate Cohn of the New York Times posited that unexpected changes in turnout were, at best, only a modest driver of Trump’s success. In reality, voters who swung toward Trump after supporting Obama played a critical role in the president’s Electoral College win.

Not only do swing voters exist — they were pivotal.

And they mattered in the 2018 midterms, too. While House Republicans won a narrow plurality of the vote in 2016, House Democrats won the national vote by almost nine points just two years later. An analysis by the Democratic data firm Catalist suggests that nearly 90 percent of the shift between those two elections was because people changed their minds.

We certainly see evidence that swing voters will matter in 2020, too. According to data from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape, a weekly online survey that I help to manage, 9 percent of registered voters who say they voted for Trump in 2016 now say they intend to vote for Biden. Conversely, 3 percent of those who reported voting for Clinton in 2016 now say they intend to vote for Trump. (These estimates come from an analysis of 6,323 interviews conducted between Aug. 13 and Aug. 19.)

None of this is to say that turnout doesn’t matter. It certainly does. But victory for candidates often lies in the artful combination of turnout and persuasion. If Trump wins in November, it’s much more likely that he’ll have done so by strategically increasing turnout and winning over persuadable voters than by radically increasing turnout alone.

A huge surge in turnout among your favored candidate’s supporters is nice to think about. Just don’t bank on it.

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