In the first three Democratic primary/caucus contests of 2016 voter turnout was lower than in 2008. Various news outlets have had articles saying this is a bad sign for Bernie’s political revolution, for example this VOX article by Jeff Stein or this MSNBC article by Steve Benen. In this post I present a counter-argument.
Comparison to 2008 is misleading.
It’s true that turnout so far in 2016 has been lower than it was in 2008. However, this is because 2008 was an outlier year. Consider turnout in the Iowa caucus. If we only look at the years 2008 and 2016, as the aforementioned articles do, it would be a bleak picture for Bernie indeed (and Hillary…). But look what happens when we expand the window to include a few more presidential election years:
Years not displayed were either midterms with lower turnout, or 1996 when Bill Clinton ran unopposed. These numbers were taken from Des Moines Public Library. It is clear that 2008 was an outlier, so we should be careful in trying to compare the present. We need to understand why it was an outlier before making conclusions about 2016.
First and most importantly, the 2008 election followed one of the most disastrous presidencies in modern US history. At the end of his term, Dubya was one of the most unpopular presidents ever with an abysmal 22 percent final approval rating. Also, in 2008 the Iowa caucus was held early in January when most college students were still on break. Sure enough, in 2008 voters aged 18-27 were 22% of Iowa Democratic caucus attendees, compared to just 18% in 2016.
In New Hampshire, turnout was about 118,000 in 1988, 154,639 in 2000, 287,557 in 2008, and 250,974 in 2016. This is less damning than Iowa. There is less justification for making comparisons in Nevada because it was recently changed from a primary to an early caucus, so previous years could be different for any number of reasons. At any rate, the 2/3 Nevada turnout cited in the VOX article is also less damning than the Iowa numbers where turnout was only about 60% what it was in 2008.
In summary, 2008 was an outlier for Democratic turnout because of the unpopular Republican president in office at the time. Sure enough, there were only 118,000 Republicans participating in the Iowa caucus in 2008 compared to 180,000 this year. Arguably the fairest comparison for Democratic turnout in Iowa in 2016 was Iowa in 1980 or 2000, the when the incumbent president was a Democrat. In that case, the political revolution effect is yooge, about the same size as the incumbent reversal effect Republicans experienced this year. Even compared to 2004, when Bush was still in office, 2016 had a significantly larger turnout.
The revolution really needs to happen in the general election, not the primary.
As long as Bernie can secure the nomination, it doesn’t matter if turnout in the primaries and caucuses is not at all time record highs. The place where he needs to win big in order to have a shot at implementing his agenda is in the general election. One might worry that disappointing turnout in primaries will lead to disappointing turnout in the general election. That’s a valid concern, so let’s address it by asking the fundamental question: Can Bernie win the general election by a large margin?
My answer: all signs currently point to a resounding yes. First let’s consider what drives high voter turnout, specifically what happened in 2008. The answer is that young people, blacks, and Hispanics all had higher turnout that year. Bernie’s support among young people is higher than Obama’s was in 2008. Some analysts have persistently pointed to Clinton’s high levels of support among non-whites as a sign of trouble for Sanders. It’s true that Bernie will have to win over more non-whites to win the nomination, and I believe he can and will. But it’s naive to suggest that a large margin of support among minorities in primaries for Clinton would translate to the kind of minority turnout that Obama was able to generate in 2008. I don’t know if either candidate will bring as many minorities out to vote because they are both white. But it is abundantly clear that Clinton would have a big millennial problem in the general election.
Another demographic trend that could have a big impact in the general election is the rise of independents. Look at this Gallup polling data:
Registered Republicans have plummeted, Democrats have declined but not as much, and Independents now dominate either group by a large margin. This trend also helps explain why this election cycle has political outsiders like Sanders and Trump doing so well. Clinton is perhaps the most Democratic party establishment figure to run for president in recent history, having picked up more insider endorsements earlier than anyone else:
Can she draw support from Independents in the general election? I strongly doubt it. Can Bernie? You better believe it. And dangerously, even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz get a much greater proportion of independent voters than Clinton:
In case you missed her in that graph, she’s right below Carly Fiorina. Clinton’s demographic issues with young voters and independents should be enough to make Democrats think twice before choosing her as a nominee. In fact, I would argue they should be downright terrified about her prospects. However, that’s not the point of this post… The demographic story here about Sanders is that he absolutely can carry the general election by a large margin. If he is the nominee, the voters who would have chosen Hillary will mostly still show up and vote for Bernie against Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. Some small minority will remain obsessed over the “socialist” label, and the 1% might be upset about their taxes. But I’m far less worried about those issues, considering Obama has weathered the same labeling and ran on a similar platform of increasing taxes on those with income over 250k, than I am about Clinton’s troubles.
Aside from speculation about demographic issues there’s another way to look at electability: favorability. This chart shows that high net favorability is an excellent predictor of the general election outcome. In fact, the only counter-example was a case where Gore won the popular vote and the outcome was decided by the Supreme Court…
So what does the favorability picture look like for Clinton and Sanders? These graphs show HuffPost’s average of polls over time:
Bernie’s favorability is good and looks like it’s getting better. Hillary’s favorability is bad and looks like it’s getting worse. This isn’t absolute proof that Bernie would fare better than Hillary in the general. But there is still more evidence available in hypothetical matchup polls. In those polls Sanders does better than Clinton against Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, and about the same versus Carson. Of course, such polls also have their flaws and are not absolute proof. However, given the earlier discussion of demographics, this paints a consistent picture. Even if it’s optimistic for me to believe Bernie’s political revolution will allow him to enact a significant portion of his agenda, it seems clear that he is at least better positioned to win the general election than Clinton. Considering the Republican field, that should be terrifying to Clinton’s supporters.
One more difference between primaries and the general election: time. Sanders started way, way behind Clinton, and has had to spend all his time catching up. He doesn’t have the advantage of a huge political machine working on his behalf, and still he is keeping up and giving them a run for their money (literally!). If he wins the nomination, his organization will have expanded significantly by that time and he’ll be in a much better position to GOTV nationwide. Arguably, one more reason why turnout is low this year is that the machine which generated Obama-level turnout in 2008 is actually not trying to generate such turnout now because that would hurt their candidate. Again, if Bernie gets the nomination then this machine can do general election GOTV efforts among young people, taking out all the stops.
Low turnout is also a problem for Clinton.
Sanders is proposing a more ambitious agenda so low turnout in the general would be a bigger problem for him. But if the drop in turnout from 2008 reflects poorly on anyone, it should be the political establishment. The Iowa and Nevada state Democratic Parties should be ashamed at how disorganized and chaotic their caucuses were. The DNC and all its superdelegates should reflect on how their actions make voters feel shut out of the decision process.
Focusing on Iowa again as an example, let’s ask which candidate is actually drawing in new voters. In 2008, 43% of Democratic caucus-goers were first-time participants. Given the incredible high turnout that year, and the 4% drop in the age 18-27 group this year, we should expect in 2016 a much lower proportion who never participated before (they probably participated in 2008). In fact, it held steady at 44% this year, and Sanders carried the first-timer group with 59% to Clinton’s 37%. Even the Editorial Board of the NYTimes is feeling this Bern:
The youth vote’s biggest beneficiary by far is Bernie Sanders, who filled venues in Las Vegas with cheering young admirers last week, after winning more than 80 percent of this group in both Iowa and New Hampshire. On Saturday young people made up 18 percent of voters in Nevada’s Democratic caucus, five percentage points more than in 2008.
There is also evidence that Sanders draw out a greater proportion of Latino voters in Nevada. According to the WCV Institute, Latinos made up 19% of the caucus compared to just 13% in 2008, and Sanders won in that demographic by about 8%, larger than Clinton’s margin in the state overall.
In summary, Sanders really is drawing more people into the political process. Clinton has much less of a claim to that, so if anyone in this race is to blame for the drop in turnout since 2008 it’s her.
Is it really optimistic for me to think Bernie’s political revolution could succeed? Consider how much success he has had already, coming from so far behind, struggling against a monolithic establishment that placed all its weight behind his opponent before he even announced. If he manages to overcome that and win the nomination, imagine what he can do in the general election with the Democratic establishment riding his coattails rather than actively opposing him.