On Election Day, Expect Your Fellow Americans to Disappoint You
We are now 20 days from Election Day 2018 and the political climate is perhaps more toxic than it has ever been. In a new advertisement running around the country, Future 45, a Republican political action committee, alleges a House of Representatives run by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would mean the advance of socialism. The GOP nominee running for the open Arizona U.S. Senate seat has accused her Democratic opponent of treason. Six of Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ari.) brothers and sisters star in a television advertisement encouraging Phoenix voters to vote for his opponent. (Thanksgiving dinner is going to be awkward.)
The ads are getting more ferocious because October, of course, is the moment that millions of voters’ preferences solidify. But more critically to the outcome of the midterms in less than three weeks, it’s also when millions of voters decide whether or not they’ll actually bother to go to the polls and the outcomes of this Election Day, like virtually every one before it, will depend mightily on voter turnout.
If we believe the data we’ve seen throughout the year, the lines at polling stations on Nov. 6 will be long—much longer than they have been in the past. Voter enthusiasm is through the roof, analysts and newscasters say. These surveys, however, are historically poor indicators of actual turnout.
For example, a poll taken by The Washington Post and ABC this month found 77 percent of Americans are “absolutely certain” that they will vote on Nov. 6. The Post heralded this news, noting their survey indicates voter enthusiasm is “up sharply since 2014.”
But is it? Let’s look at what a poll from the same organizations found in October 2014, right before the last midterm elections.
At that point, 65 percent of survey respondents told The Post and ABC pollsters that they were “absolutely certain” they were going to vote in the midterm elections.
Election Day came and … only 36 percent of Americans -- or just more than half of those that were “absolutely certain” they would vote on Election Day cast a ballot.
Voter turnout in midterm elections has always been lower than it is in presidential election cycles, but it’s also been on a downward trajectory. The 2014 turnout rate was down from 41 percent in 2010 and down from a peak two generations ago (1966) of 48 percent.
Approximately 58 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election.
Gallup’s enthusiasm numbers are generally a bit closer to reality, but even they portend much better turnout than we eventually see. In October 2010, just weeks before the midterm election in which President Barack Obama’s party Democratic lost a net 63 House seats and a net six Senate seats, 68 percent of Americans said they were going to vote. That figure was identical in October 2006 when Democrats wrested control of the House from Republicans. In 2002, President George W. Bush’s first midterm election, it was 61 percent.
Turnout in 2002 was just 39.5 percent. It was 40.4 percent in 2006 and 41 percent in 2010.
States with competitive Senate races this year—Indiana, Texas, and West Virginia—are some of the states that have persistently low turnout in midterm elections.
Let’s say the polls are right this year—or at least more reliable than usual. If enthusiasm has indeed increased, what does that tell us today about who can we expect to show up at the polls in November and, in turn, who they will pick to lead the House and Senate in 2019?
Despite the prognostications on cable news, it’s not clear.
The Post and ABC poll referenced above found key Democratic constituencies have indicated they’re more likely to vote this year than in the past. Certainty about voting is up 48 points from 2014 for non-white voters; 32 points for women under 40; 17 points for all voters under the age of 30; and 15 points for white women with college degrees.
Overall, however, 79 percent of Republicans say they’re certain they’re going to go to the polls on Nov. 6, an approximate balance of Democrats’ 81 percent certainty level. In January 2018, 68 percent of Democrats said they were certain that they were going to vote. Sixty-three percent of Republicans did. In August, the margin was 79 percent for Democrats to 75 percent for Republicans. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute looked at several recent polls to determine which party has an advantage when it comes to enthusiasm. Their analysis showed similar results. Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage ranged from just three points in surveys by Fox and Gallup to a mere eight points in a Pew survey.
No poll can say for certain who is more excited to vote and they certainly can’t predict with any certainty who actually will vote. But history suggests that we can take one thing to the bank: For all the noise about the midterms being the most important election of our lifetimes over the last many months, the majority of Americans will not go to the polls on Election Day.