It is popular among political scientists to discuss the impact of large-scale turnout among young voters and African-Americans on our elections. This is akin to discussing what would happen if a comet hit the Earth – we make guesses based on fragmentary evidence, but no one has actually witnessed it.

It is an unquestioned fact that if voters between the ages of 18 and 24 are least likely to vote (or even be registered). In fact, the relationship between age and turnout is positive and persists until very old age.** Mountains of evidence also exist to show that black voters lag their white counterparts in turnout, although increased mobilization efforts may be closing the gap. This creates a vicious cycle in which politicians talk more about issues relevant to people who vote while ignoring issues relevant to young or black voters. They're playing the percentages. This is why you hear so goddamn much about Medicare and prescription drug prices and almost nothing about student loans, urban blight, or the decaying market for careers as opposed to entry-level jobs.

It also happens to be true, however, that young or black voters lean left. It is standard operating procedure for Democrats to attempt to increase turnout among these groups. Some have even based entire electoral strategies on it, and history is littered with their failed campaigns. The reasons for failure are numerous and conjectural – young voters have less life experience, may not consider politics important, may be ignorant of registration/voting procedures, or simply don't hear anything interesting out of the candidates (see above). Lower black turnout is speculated to be a function of cynicism, scapegoating by mainstream (white) politicians, socioeconomic deficits, etc.

Obama is not the first candidate to invest significant resources into turning out voting-eligible black or college-aged Americans. Several have hoped that it would put them over the top, only to be sorely disappointed. The thing is, young voters get real excited, swear they will vote, and then…..they don't. Likewise, large numbers of new black registrants are added each election season with a negligible increase in turnout. So this strategy, although common, has yet to produce a demonstrable victory.

We may see a meaningful increase in black- and young-voter participation in 2008, but a careful analysis of demographic splits suggests that the result will not be as impressive as many observers expect. Black voters are about 12-14% of the electorate, a disproportionate number of whom (compared to other ethnic groups) are ineligible to vote. Increasing black turnout by 10% (an ambitious goal) would only increase overall turnout among all eligible voters by about 1%. Since black voters choose the Democrat about 93% of the time – maybe 99% this time around – the majority of that increase will benefit Obama. So the 1% increase is significant enough to matter in really close states (note that some, like Iowa, Nevada, and NH have negligible black populations) but most of it will be insignificant, falling in states like Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Illinois, and so on. It may help a tight race in Ohio, NC, or PA, although they would have to be very close for this to matter.

The effect of young voters is even more dubious. Let's say that they really jack up turnout rates from 30% to 60%. Well, 18-to-24s only comprise 8% of the electorate. And the split in their allegiances, according to available polling data, is something like 65/35 Obama. So even doubling 18-to-24 turnout is unlikely to have a statistically significant impact on electoral outcomes unless a particular state is extremely close.

In short, if Obama wins big it is going to be on account of his appeal to middle-aged and older white voters. I don't think this is the case because said voters are "more important" – they are simply the most numerous by far.

I am a fairly committed anti-skeptic at this point in the race. Turnout among college-aged and black voters, however, will remain firmly in the "believe it when I see it" camp. My feeling is that the makeup of the electorate will change while overall turnout increases only slightly. The reason is simple: for every person who would not ordinarily vote but will turn out for Obama, there is a Republican in Illinois or New York who is dangerously close to thinking "Um, fuck it." Right or wrong, Republicans have been demoralized by nine months of a bad candidate, a worse running mate, and incessant messages about the impending bloodshed in Congress. In areas not broadly considered competitive, apathy (or overconfidence) might suppress turnout as much as other circumstances promote it.

**Turnout increases with age because voters become "stakeholders" in their 30s/40s, buying homes and having kids. They have more to gain or lose. Another bump occurs at age 65, as the elderly have time on their hands. But at very old ages (80+) the relationship between age and turnout becomes inverse, as mobility, the ability to drive, and mental faculties tend to decline rapidly and take political participation with them.

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11 thoughts on “SIGHTINGS”

  • Could we please stop making race a factor. At this point in our continual civil rights movement I think it might be appropriate to stop dividing things by race… doesn't it seem a little racist to target blacks or hispanics specifically. Lets target regional areas instead.

    It isn't black voters that don't show up… it's people who are lower on the socioeconomic scale.

  • We talk about race because race is still relevant, quite independently of income, education, and other socioeconomic measures. See Richard Timpone's article "Structure, Behavior, and Voter Turnout in the United States" in the APSR from 1998 for some good evidence. Leighley and Hill ("Racial diversity, voter turnout, and mobilizing institutions in the United States") also do a thorough review.

    When there cease to be racial differences in turnout that are not explained by socioeconomics, then I suspect we will stop talking about it.

  • Race is a factor, just as age, sex, wealth, and a dozen other things per person. Like tends to stick with like. How people self-identify means a lot to those who look for trends. And some people are still marginalized; but not because I notice them doing it.

    The young, uneducated, and poor (regardless of race) tend to have employers unsympathetic to the scheduling needs of their workers, whether in re: childcare, traffic court, voting, or whatever. Underemployed strivers (the most likely to vote among the short-order cooks, motel maids, hospital orderlies, and so on) have a hard time running daily errands, more so if they're parents…and all the inconvenience matters as much as the skeptical voice within. Time flies.

    But I have never heard so many Medicare-eligible people say they're not voting. LOTS. They can't vote for this one, and they won't vote for that one.

  • Can you believe that I have actually started to see Obama advertisements on TV here in California? Man, they must be dripping with money to spend it here where it is almost completely pointless.

    The few ads I saw were negative about McCain. I guess I would have expected to see pro-Obama ads, not anti-McCain ads, since I would suppose that pro-Obama ads would mobilize the hopeful Democrat voters (which could be important here), as opposed to getting likely undecided voters to switch preferences from McCain to Obama (which is probably unnecessary here).

    I am wondering if campaigns actually use different strategies for different situations, similar to what I envisioned. Or is the only important strategy to amass as much money as possible then blow your load?

  • I'm actually thinking of *bribing* my students to vote: giving them the day off from class in exchange for their presentation of a voting receipt. (Non-partisan, of course–I've pointed out that the consequences of this election are too important for them not to have their say, no matter what that say may be.) I still don't think it'll be enough to get them out there.

    Glad to hear that you remain anti-skeptic, though. Me, I've cracked. I've been muttering "Dewey Defeats Truman" under my breath the past few days.

  • Last week the Old Lady and I did early voting. The vast majority of those in line were black. This county does have a large black population. Even tho it took over 2 hours, nobody complained. I did see a couple of people leave but they were the rare exception. On the news since the voting started they have been saying that the wait time to vote has been about the same or longer. This week they will have advance voting with more polling places available.

  • 2^ In DC I see tons of minute long positive Obama ads wtf. Though, perhaps, I am getting the Maryland/Virgina directed ads, where it would actually make more sense. Not really sure how that works.

  • Is there any literature as to whether or not young people showing up to the polls is more strategically based on how in-play the state is? If you want Obama (or McCain) to win, and live in IL or TX, it is highly unlikely the state will change if many young people show up – and if you are indifferent on city clerk, judges, property taxes, etc. you may not show up at all, even though you are "a voter." I always thought that might be relevant.

    A back-of-the-envelope is if young people show up a lot more in close state elections, or (given liberal views) more in states that tilt slightly red.

  • Dustin, you are getting ads for the NoVA television market. It does surprise me quite a bit to hear that there are no mccain ads. I have the sneaking suspicion that he has gone "all in" on Florida and Ohio while essentially giving up in a lot of other places.

    Mike, oddly enough, I have been trying to talk one of my colleagues into co-authoring a paper on that with me for years. The effect of Electoral College competitiveness on turnout needs to be explored, although doing so has a number of challenges.

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