Follow my analysis of multiyear presidential election data and you will learn several remarkable things with implications for this year's election. First, though the term voter turnout is often used, there are two significantly different variations. Sometimes it refers to the fraction of voter age or eligible population that votes. Other times, the more useful and correct version is the fraction of registered voters. The national number of registered voters is always considerably less that the national voter age population, and obstacles to registration vary greatly among states.
It is also revealing to look at how the ratio of registered
voters to voter age population has changed over time. Why?
Because Americans have to take action to become registered to vote and,
therefore, it suggests a civic or patriotic commitment to participate in
American democracy. In 2012, about 80
percent of the voter age population was registered, an impressive level. Back in 1964 it was 65 percent. Indeed, a major change happened in 2008, when
the typical, longer term 65 percent figure jumped to 82 percent and stayed high
in 2012. Clearly, a national effort to
increase registration changed the historic pattern for the positive.
But an intriguing question is this: Does a greater number
and fraction of registered voters translate to higher voter turnout? You might think so, because they have turned
eligibility into likelihood. But the
simple answer is no. A closer look is
Going back to 1964, registered voter turnout (in the Johnson
versus Goldwater race) was very high at just under 96 percent. The ten-election average from 1968 to 2004,
however, was just over 87 percent, with not much variation. Then something major changed. In 2008 it was just over 70 percent and in
2012 it was about 67 percent. Both
levels are a major phenomenon because in those two years the ratio of
registered to total voter age population was historically high at 80 percent or
more. Disturbingly, registration does not
equal voting, despite the social media revolution and micro-targeting campaign
methods. Registered people not voting are
much more significant than eligible citizens not voting. The former are likely more informed, but also
more angry and dissatisfied than the latter.
Note that if historical voter age population turnout data
are examined instead of registration turnout there is no drop-off phenomenon. The corresponding ten-election average is 57
percent with little variation, and was similar in 2008 and 2012.
In sum, when more Americans were registered to vote, a much
smaller fraction actually voted for president in the two elections that
President Obama won. How significant was
this? If the prior ten-year historic
trend turnout would have prevailed, then in 2008 another 32 million people
would have voted, and in 2012 another 39 million would have. These figures show that very large numbers of
those aligned with the Democratic and Republican candidates, or turned off by
both, decided not to vote, despite being registered. Many may have also been impacted by the
national economic recession in that period causing dissatisfaction with most
political and economic institutions.
Likewise, millions were burned by economic inequality.
Consider our history with disrupter presidential
candidates. Three elections stand out
because third party candidates usually received around one percent unlike these. In 1992 the outsider Ross Perot obtained
nearly 20 percent of the national vote, but Bill Clinton beat George Bush. Significantly, there was an uptick in the
voter turnout to 90 percent, compared to 86 percent in the prior election (when
George Bush beat Michael Dukakis in a landslide).
But the following two elections showed less potential and
public perception for disrupter success.
In 1996 Perot was again on the ballot but received only eight percent of
the national vote and voter turnout dropped to 82 percent when Bill Clinton easily
beat Bob Dole. Then, in 2000, Ralph
Nader and Pat Buchanan became disrupter candidates but received just over three
percent of the total vote, and the turnout was 86 percent (and George W. Bush
won over Al Gore with more electoral but fewer popular votes).
In all three of these elections, however, all the losing disrupter
candidates were third party candidates. The
big lesson is that a disrupter presidential candidate has to be a major party candidate
to stand a chance of winning in a nation with a duopoly political system,
despite the difficulty of accomplishing this.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and also Michael Bloomberg and the
American public seem to have learned this lesson.
With no disrupter candidate success in three prior
elections, by 2008 a large fraction of the population had turned negative about
the whole two-party political system as also shown by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street
movements. This populist unrest has exploded,
culminating with the current anti-establishment, anti-status quo sentiment
supporting both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
One scenario for this year is that one of the two major
party disrupter candidates gets to the final ballot producing high voter
turnout, most likely Trump. Both
succeeding is quite unlikely. If either
Trump was on the general 2016 election ballot, it is reasonable to believe that
a high turnout would occur for him, versus a relatively low turnout for the
establishment candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton. Certainly, the high turnout in many Trump primaries
suggests this. Nevertheless, Clinton could still win, especially if Sanders supporters
voted for Clinton
rather than Trump out of spite, lesser-evil thinking or conviction. Trump must target eligible, angry citizens
and get them voting, or registered for the first time.
The second scenario is that both disruptive candidates fail
to get on the final ballot because powerful status quo prevails. Voter turnout may again be 70 percent or less,
because of so much public anger and dissatisfaction with the political
establishment. In other words, it is
possible that over 30 million registered voters would boycott the 2016
presidential election, despite an even larger number of registered voters
compared to 2012 because of the heated primary races for this cycle. This would greatly impact how campaigns chose
to advance their cause. Establishment
candidates would try to sell reforms, but voters could reject an obvious
dishonest campaign tactic.
Such low turnout is less than a number of advanced
democracies, reducing the legitimacy of American representative and
participatory democracy and its image as the exceptional world democracy. Something that only candidate Sanders has commented
on. A voter boycott by disappointed
disrupter candidate supporters in 2016 because their favored disrupter was not on
the ballot could be seen as a tactic to intentionally reduce the legitimacy of and
embarrass American democracy in order to better motivate serious reforms by
establishment candidates. This is a true
With no disrupter on the final ballot, which would be a
shock to many Americans, we would have had three presidential elections in a
row with very low registered voter turnout.
Finally, the public, and hopefully the media, might conclude that America's
delusional democracy has definitely been replaced by a plutocracy. Paradoxically,
rejection of voting may be a way to make America great again by pushing the
establishment president from either major party to become a serious reformer. Perhaps major party convention delegates
should think about this and see the benefit of having a disrupter candidate
rather than pursue a slugfest between two establishment candidates as the world
sees American democracy crumbling.