Democrats Still Have a Turnout Problem

Don't worry about a crowded primary - worry about the still vast numbers of voters who tap out

Publisher’s Riff
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Many Democratic Party faithful, rank and file can’t help but lose their minds: the field continues to expand at an official count of 24, with whispers of others. But, despite the sound of banging heads on doors and a sea of angry fists presuming 2020 defeat because of the sea of seemingly egotistical White House wannabes, a crowded primary field is the wrong problem to focus on. 

What Democrats should be worried about right now, while it's still early, is how they can massively outperform both Republican voter turnout and their own turnout in recent elections. This is the hint House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped a couple weeks ago: the margin must be "big" and convincing. Between the fractured state of their own party, the disillusionment of typically loyal electoral blocs, a lack of unified messaging and an inability to wage an opposition that can keep up with the mastery-over-media-cycle displayed by the GOP and their leader, Democrats do have a turnout problem.  Simply put: Trump won in 2016 and Republicans still maintain a hold on the Senate and Handmaid Tale-state Republican dominated legislatures in places like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee not just because of voter suppression or Russian meddling, but because too many Americans still aren’t turning out.

It’s a problem requiring early focus and better coordination as opposed to what we’ve had up to this point. And it’s simply not enough to rely on general public dismay and Trumpian-induced fatigue.  Being much more brutally honest about both 2016 and 2018 data should offer clues, cautionary tales and lessons about the true state of voter turnout – and why it’s still not enough to ensure a different outcome in 2020.

Keep in mind that in 2016 only 27 percent of the entire “Voting Eligible Population,” (or “VEP”) as the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald coined it, determined that Donald Trump would be the next president.  So, to recap, we left the current mess up to less than 30 percent of the nearly 231 million U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote (for dark comedy, that translates into just 19 percent of the entire U.S. population). Trump received 62,984,825 votes – and even though Hillary Clinton’s 65,853,516 votes were numerically superior by 3 million votes, she still didn’t clinch enough votes to snag Electoral College numbers in crucial states Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  When adding both Trump and Clinton 2016 numbers up, 59.2 percent of the VEP showed up. 

The question we should be asking, in preparation for 2020, is what happened to that missing 41 percent?  Especially when you consider bluer and purpler states show more population share than red states. And, particularly, when you consider that the average voter turnout for the “OECD” countries (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) or largest economies is 70 percent. Countries such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Italy and Sweden have enjoyed turnout rates between 80 – 90 percent. Even turnout in the recent South African national elections, while historically and concerningly low, was above 65 percent. 

One can nibble at the differences in politics between the U.S. and those countries, but the fact remains that turnout in the U.S. is still low. Had turnout reached 70 percent or more, we would have had a different outcome in 2016. What if 2018 midterm turnout was way higher than its “historic” 49.6 percent rate – would Democrats have gotten more than just the House (since they’re finding out they can’t really do anything without a Senate)?

Historically, the fact that Democrats electorally perform better than Republicans when overall turnout is stronger, suggests that Trump would have lost in a high turnout scenario and Democrats would have retaken the Senate.  Additionally, the three states that gave Trump the winning Electoral College edge he needed in 2016 – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – had a 3-percentage point Democratic state party affiliation advantage over Republicans.  Granted, we now know the role of everything from voter suppression shenanigans to a narcissistic (and possibly Russian-infiltrated) Jill Stein vacuuming votes and calling for recounts undermined Clinton, but we also know Democrats, seeing trouble on the horizon, didn’t push hard enough to turn out the votes needed to offset those factors. 

It's the same issue everywhere. Democrats still maximize less when they’ve got more to work with while Republicans, working with demographically less, still maximize opportunities through a combination of subterfuge, suppression and cooked numbers.  Accepting that this is still a thing that’s not ending anytime soon, Democrats still don’t get it: more voters turning out can simply overwhelm that, and especially in states where they have massive pockets of Black, Brown and Indigenous and other voters who normally align with them and team up with progressive White voters.  Yet, the tendency to celebrate just-enough turnout (the minimum best) results in Pyrrhic victories.  Over 13 million people were registered to vote in Florida in 2018, with Democrats maintaining a 2 percent registration edge over Republicans, but there was only a 55 percent turnout rate, handing Andrew Gillum a loss and Republicans the ability to snatch voting rights away from the formerly incarcerated and put guns in classrooms. What happened to the other 45 percent? Voter suppression didn’t take it all away.  In Georgia, 6.9 million voters were registered to vote, reportedly. And even after the Georgia Secretary of State purged over 500,000 of those, there were only 3.9 million who showed up for a 55 percent turnout rate.  Where was the other 45 percent – even if voter suppression shaved off a little over 7 percent of that?

Less than 50 percent of Alabama voters turned out in that state’s 2018 gubernatorial and state legislative races. But even though Republicans baked up an illegal gerrymandering and state party affiliation edge, 25 percent of registered Alabama voters are Black, 50 percent when you combine Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous voters together.  Hence, did Democrats make any effort – even after seeing Doug Jones once improbable victory in 2017 – to retake anything in 2018? And are they aggressively tapping into potential Black voters in states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere in the South where Black residents account for anywhere from 18 percent to way over 30 percent of the population?

Voter suppression, gerrymandering and foreign rival intrusion aren’t the only nefarious and twisted anti-democracy challenges diminishing voter turnout. Turnout is also impacted by those who are just not voting. Knowing that they face such, impacted groups – from Democrats to voting, civil rights and community-based mobilization organizations – must work harder to find and creatively activate every last pocket of voter they can find to stage a proper electoral resistance. Don’t just register voters – turn them out. Leave no stone unturned. In the next general election cycle, to get this done, turnout can’t be half-ass or “we tried” or just enough – it must be as extra and maximized as far as our imagination takes it. The primary is the least of your worries.  

To reach B|E Note Contributors for media inquiries and other public engagements, contact charles@strategybe.com