Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s the people who don’t vote who determine the election.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard that this year’s U.S. presidential showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is an epic “unpopularity contest” between two contenders with the lowest favorability ratings of any nominees in decades. It’s like the political equivalent of Time Warner Cable versus Comcast, but, hey, you’ve got to have broadband service, and a president, right?
In addition to widespread voter discontent, however, there is unusually high voter interest in the election. Which leads to an intriguing question: Will voters’ dissatisfaction with the two main candidates prompt them to stay home in November? Or, might the high levels of engagement lead to greater turnout, even if that turnout is motivated for some by a desire to vote against the greater of two evils? Voter turnout in recent U.S. presidential election years has ranged between 58 and 62 percent — higher than it’s been since the 1960s, but still trailing well behind most developed nations. Still, turnout can be particularly crucial in close elections, and those electing to stay home may prove decisive this November.
Turnout is notoriously difficult to predict …
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, voter satisfaction with this year’s presidential nominees is lower than it’s been in decades. Fewer than half of registered voters (40 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats) claim to be satisfied with their options, and a similar percentage of all voters (41 percent) say neither Trump nor Clinton would make a good president. Ouch.
Perhaps some voters will upgrade their assessment in the wake of the conventions, but given that the two candidates are already such well-known commodities, it seems unlikely that favorability ratings will change too much. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean voters will stay home. Such dissatisfaction has not dulled voter interest in the election — 80 percent of registered voters in the Pew study said they’d given the race “quite a lot” of thought, the highest since 1992, and even higher than the 72 percent in 2008, a year that saw record presidential turnout. “In the past, voter interest levels have been a fairly solid predictor of turnout levels,” says Christopher Borick, a political scientist and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, “so despite the very high levels of dissatisfaction with the choices, I think we can expect turnout that is pretty robust this fall.”
Some other signs augur in favor of higher-than-expected turnout as well. In general, open elections — in which no incumbent runs — engender greater turnout. How favorably a candidate is viewed within his or her own party can also impact turnout, and both Trump and Clinton are doing much better among their own party members than the electorate at large. A strong dislike for a candidate — what pollsters call negative voting — can lead to stronger turnout, too. The Pew study found that 55 percent of Trump supporters and 50 percent of Clinton supporters consider their vote as more of a vote against the opposing candidate than one in support of their own. “Strong opposition can motivate turnout as much as, or more than, strong support,” says Jennifer Dineen, a politics professor and polling expert at the University of Connecticut. “But if we get to the point where a large percentage of the electorate feels like they can’t stand either candidate, then turnout will be low.”
Of course, general turnout levels are not as important to determining a winner as who turns out. And here are a few tea leaves to watch on that front:
Republicans are more engaged than Democrats. According to Pew, 85 percent of GOP voters (versus 78 percent of Democrats) have given a lot of thought to the election, up 13 points from 2012.
White voters are more engaged than non-white voters. This election, 84 percent of white voters say they have given a lot of thought to the race, which is more than Black (69%) or Hispanic (68%) voters, and up 16 percentage points from 2012. But the percentage of the electorate that is white decreased to 72 percent in 2012 from 74 percent in 2008, and is expected to drop again in 2016.
Black voters overwhelmingly support Clinton, but may not turn out like they did for Obama. Polls suggest that African-American voters are likely to vote for Clinton by the same large margin as Obama, but will they vote in such large numbers? Borick says he’s focused on African-American voters in key swing states like Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, where turnout could be high, but lower than in the past two elections.
The share of women voters is growing larger and more Democratic. American women have turned out in greater numbers than men in every election since 1980, and the gender gap in turnout has been widening (4 percent more women than men voted in 2012). And the Democratic Party’s traditional advantage among women looks likely to grow this year: According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, Trump’s disapproval rating among female voters stands at 67 percent. But … Clinton doesn’t do much better, at 60 percent.
Latino voters are growing in number but not engagement. A record 11.2 million Latino voters turned out in 2012, and the Naleo Educational Fund, a bipartisan Latino group, estimates at least 13.1 million will vote this November. Like Obama, Clinton should win the Latino vote by 40 to 45 points, and she has been courting the demographic assiduously, but even with Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, Hispanics are less likely to strongly agree that the stakes are higher this election than in prior years (50 percent, compared to 66 percent of Blacks and 63 percent of whites).
Turnout, however, is notoriously difficult to predict, and we are still early on in the general election, says Dineen. Once the baseball playoffs start this autumn, she says, we’ll have a better idea about potential turnout. And while there could be a large portion of the electorate that feels disenchanted this November, it’s also too soon to tell, says Borick, whether that will dampen turnout in 2018 and other future cycles. Stay tuned.