Turnout’s uncertain trajectory

The Obama phenomenon in 2008 fostered a trend reversal in turnout decline that was decades in the making. Specific groups of voters — minorities and the young, particularly — suddenly surged in voter participation. It’s a story we all know well. Republicans were some of the first to notice, of course, and responded with our own voter registration initiatives and enhanced get-out-the-vote campaigns. It did some good. Where the data are in, most reports are that GOP turnout was strong last November, even rising well over 2008. But it didn’t turn the tide, because the Obama Democrats moved their own turnout up again in key segments of their base, especially minorities. 

Political science once espoused the view that political participation, like turnout at the polls on Election Day, is an acquired habit. People who vote vote and people who don’t don’t. While there might be some exceptions either way on occasion, the habit is largely an ingrained one. Or at least it was thought to be. The same political scientists who spotted the pattern also saw that the habit is acquired over time. Voters who don’t pick up on the habit early in their lives may get involved later. But once they jump on the bandwagon, they stay on board. Or they were thought to do so. Some of the same political researchers have noted that voting is a social or cultural thing. There are states with cultures that encourage voting. We also know that adults who live with others are more likely to vote than similar persons who live alone. Voting is well-understood as a social act. Or at least it has been.

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Of course, Obama has broken a lot of the old rules, so we have to wonder whether these traditional political-science maxims will be rendered null and void and the turnout that Obama’s campaigns have engendered will persist. Will the Obama youth and minority surge cohort keep on voting? Were the 2008 and 2012 elections instrumental in instilling a habit of voting that lasts lifetimes? Or will young and minority voters, especially Latinos, begin behaving like their peer cohorts of decades ago, lagging the participation rates of Anglos and older voters? I won’t be surprised if the Obama activism boom dissipates once a Joe Biden or some other old white man grabs control of the levers of power in the Democratic Party.

Don’t think atrophy of activism cannot happen, even for Anglo and older voters. They told us that rock ‘n’ roll would never die, but it has, or at least is on life support when it comes to live radio in most markets. They told us that the United States is one nation under God, yet most Americans have little time for God, if Sunday-morning church attendance is any barometer. Who would have seen the gay revolution coming, and the same-sex marriage boom? These trends represent far bigger social changes than any decline in turnout by some core Democrats. It’s entirely plausible that one day the 2008 and 2012 elections will be seen as a momentary respite from a longer half-century slide in voting and political activism.

There are some specific parallel political and social changes that could drive turnout lower for everyone. For example, the push for absentee and mail-back voting in many states could lessen or remove some of the social benefits associated with joining other voters at the polls. Other forms of community activism, like charitable, educational, environmental or the like may supplant politics as the focus of our efforts to make for a better world. Or we may just become work-a-holics with little time left for politics or do-gooding. Things change. Turnout may stumble as quickly as it surged.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.