Why you should care
Because this is what will decide the White House.
Daniel Malloy is OZY’s U.S. politics editor.
There are a lot of numbers to think about when it comes to this year’s presidential election. But here’s a big one to chew on: 59 percent. That’s the proportion of Americans who are eligible to vote who cast a ballot for president in 2016. The number was up slightly from 2012, and down a bit from a historic high in 2008. But going back decades, the story is roughly the same: 40 percent of the population doesn’t cast a ballot.
In an age where political engagement is through the roof thanks to President Donald Trump, who stokes the strongest of feelings among his supporters and detractors, America is largely dug in. The persuadable middle seems to shrink by the day. That’s why OZY is devoting a large part of our 2020 election coverage to answering the question: Who Cares?
To that end, we partnered with Washington-based data firm 0ptimus to take an unprecedented dive into the last four election cycles to show you — on a county-by-county basis — where voters are turning out and where they are not. We’ve already told you about trends like the Apathy Belt, where voter turnout has sagged, and the county where 100 percent of eligible voters came out to the polls.
In 2020, we will spend the election season telling you about the people and trends behind the mobilization efforts that will determine whether Trump gets a second term.
Campaigning “has been continually shifting away from persuasion and more toward turnout in the overall sense,” says Brian Reisinger, a Republican political strategist in Wisconsin who worked on Sen. Ron Johnson’s 2016 campaign there.
A couple of caveats are necessary. No. 1: Voter turnout does not simply rest on caring or commitment. There are ongoing legal battles across the country over barriers to voting — which can disproportionately affect the poor, students and people of color.
No. 2: Persuasion still matters, and not just for those Obama-Trump voters who have been endlessly dissected for the past three years. Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, says the reason many Black voters did not show up for Hillary Clinton in 2016 is not because they weren’t mobilized, but because they weren’t persuaded. “The mistake people will make is they assume that this will be a mobilization base, and they will not have a persuasion plan for them,” Shropshire says. She points to how the Trump campaign is already mounting an effort online and in predominately African American neighborhoods to siphon away some of the Black vote, and she urges Democrats not to wait until after Labor Day to fire up this core constituency.
Part of motivating African Americans to come out and vote blue — as they have historically at around 90 percent — will require a focus on an affirmative vision, not merely an anti-Trump message, Shropshire says. She points to a recent BlackPAC-funded poll of registered African American voters that found big majorities in favor of free public college tuition (76 percent), a wealth tax (71 percent), reparations (71 percent), Medicare for All (65 percent) and the Green New Deal (57 percent) to argue that a Democratic candidate proposing big things will have a better time motivating these voters. In the presidential primary, these issues remain a point of contention. As Bernie Sanders put it in December’s Democratic debate: “You don’t have the largest voter turnout unless you create energy and excitement. And you don’t create energy and excitement unless you are prepared to take on the people who own America and are prepared to speak to the people who are working in America.” He then went on to reference Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and free college.
Of course, those policies can also serve to motivate Republicans, who will be throwing the word “socialism” around whether Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, is the nominee or not.
But the biggest mobilizer for Republicans right now is impeachment. “Engagement is pretty off the charts,” Reisinger says, with the House voting to impeach Trump and the Senate trial likely to begin this month. Republicans have turned the proceedings into a fundraising bonanza, with Trump seeming to relish talking about it on the stump as he casts the inquiry as illegitimate.
Reisinger acknowledges that Democrats are fired up too, as evidenced by their wins in Wisconsin and nationally in 2018. “We’re used to knife’s-edge elections,” he says, “and we’re used to each side fighting to the end for every last inch.”
Analysts expect that 59 percent to rise this year. The party that best taps into America’s missing 40 percent is the one that will lay claim to the White House come November.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brian Reisinger worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. He worked for Sen. Ron Johnson.