Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up

Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up
© Aaron Schwartz

Bury Biden! That’s the number one priority of progressive Democrats, who think President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE is dead man walking and Biden is the only one standing in their way of electing a true believer — that an avalanche of minority and progressive voters will undoubtedly end the Trump presidency. Unfortunately for the progressives, the data show this is a fool’s errand. People are creatures of habit — if they don’t vote, they don’t vote. Barring a national security crisis or economic downturn — two events over which the Democrats have zero control — it’s going to be nearly impossible for a turnout strategy to win.

The fact is election turnout in a presidential year is very hard to increase. Using data from the United States Election Project of the University of Florida (surprisingly no one seems to agree on exact turnout figures over time, but all sources agree on the changes over time), since 1968 turnout averaged 56.5 percent.

Turnout was highest in 2008 at 61.6 percent, and only three elections since 1968 had turnout over 60 percent. Given that 2016 turnout (60.1 percent) was at the high end of the scale, the Democrats are already bumping against the ceiling. For the past four elections, turnout has not moved more than 3 points. Two elections (2004 and 2008) were wartime elections with unemployment rising in 2008 with turnout only barely toping 60 percent in 2004 (60.1 percent).


Turnout jumps when the country finds itself in either national security difficulties (wartime) or economic problems. Since 1948 seven elections have occurred when the United States was in the midst of foreign conflict or experiencing rising unemployment. With the exception of 1980, voter turnout was above average and 5 of 7 had turnout over 60 percent. Turnout falls in quieter times, averaging just 55.5 percent (1968 to 2016) when unemployment is falling or steady and the country is considered at peace.

Even if the Democrats could raise 2020 turnout to hit the record high from 2008, would that be enough?  It would be in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida — but only if nearly ALL the additional voters opted for the Democratic nominee (not a likely proposition). In the must-have states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, an increase in turnout of 1.5 percentage points would require the Democrats to get 77 percent of these new voters to sweep those states.

It seems far-fetched that over three-fourths of new voters would line up for the same candidate. If the new voter split was just 70/30 for the Democrats, turnout would need to increase by 1.94 percent in Wisconsin, 1.82 percent in Pennsylvania and a relatively manageable 0.6 percent in Michigan. While it doesn’t sound like much, it would mean record turnout in Pennsylvania and near-record turnout in Wisconsin.

What about minority voters? There is certainly opportunity. Hispanic turnout has never exceeded 50percent, averaging 41.8 percent since 1988. In spite of Trump’s heated rhetoric and a major push by the Democrats, Hispanic turnout in 2016 (44.9 percent) was only 1.8 percent higher than in 2012 and just 1.6 percent below the record in 2008 (46.5 percent). African-American turnout was 59.9 percent in 2016, compared to a record 69.1 percent in 2008 and 62.4 percent for Obama’s re-elect.

According to Pew Research, the number of eligible Hispanic voters is estimated at 32 million — and 30 million for African-Americans. Even if the Democrats can get the Hispanic vote to the 2016 record, that’s just 512,000 votes. Increasing African-American turnout to the 2012 level would mean 750,000 votes.  That combination would be enough to put a progressive Democrat over the top, but only if the Democratic nominee gains nearly all of those votes, a tough task.


But turning out minority and new voters is not the only hurdle progressive Democrats face. Nearly 7 million 2016 voters did not vote for Trump or Clinton (the highest level, 4.9 percent, since 1996). Over 5.2 million voters opted either for Libertarian Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonState polling problematic — again Where Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Amash decides against Libertarian campaign for president MORE or center-right protest candidate Evan McMullen while under 1.5 million voted for Jill Stein, the protest candidate of the left. If the Democrats take a hard shift to the left, Trump has 5.2 million people likely open to voting for him.

Protest voters are, by definition, a cantankerous lot. It cannot be assumed they will all shift their allegiance to either of the mainstream candidates. If we just move half of the Johnson/McMullen voters to Trump and half the Stein voters to the Democratic nominee and make no turnout changes, the electoral map shifts decidedly against the Democrats. Both New Hampshire and Minnesota move to the Trump column and he nets 160,000 votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In this scenario, a winning Democratic nominee would have to increase his or her vote total over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris favored as Biden edges closer to VP pick Ron Johnson subpoenas documents from FBI director as part of Russia origins probe Juan Williams: Older voters won't forgive Trump for COVID MORE’s by 1.45 percent in Minnesota (20,000 votes), 3.31 percent in Michigan (76,000 votes), 3.28 percent in Pennsylvania (96,000 votes), and 4.81 percent in Wisconsin (67,000 votes) — with no additional turnout from those who didn’t vote in 2016, but might vote for Trump 2020.

In the aggregate, a left-wing Democrat with record-level minority turnout (1.26 million votes) and half of Jill Stein’s votes (750,000) still falls behind if Trump gets just half of the 2016 center-right protest votes (2.6 million).

Opening the door for Trump to pick up center-right protest voters will make a progressive-driven turnout victory virtually impossible. Turnout would have to reach levels not seen since the early 1960s for that strategy to have a remote chance.

For a group in a constant state of fury over Trump, the political misjudgment of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing is the president’s best chance for four more years.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. He earned his PhD in public policy from University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711