US election

Turnout Series Introduction: Who Turns Out to Vote, Wins

By October 3, 2016 No Comments

This year, perhaps more than ever, the election will be decided by who shows up to vote. That may sound like an obvious statement, but while in Sweden voter turnout regularly exceeds 80%, in the United States turnout has not been above 60% since 1968.

Because turnout is so low, if there are changes in the turnout rate at which individual demographic groups turn out to vote, the outcome of the election can change because the shape of the electorate itself changes. The electorate is shaped by demographic developments and turnout rates, which in turn are driven by a complex interaction between voter registration levels, habits, enthusiasm, and legal obstacles.

So this week, JKL Newsroom is taking a closer look at the differences in turnout rates, using data from the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida.


Each update, beginning with data on turnout by age group, will discuss the turnout rates and the share of the electorate provided by the different demographic groups. The objective is to pull back the curtain on what motivates the strategies the presidential campaigns employ, and how their communications and get-out-the-vote efforts are shaped in accordance with those strategies.

The turnout rate is the percentage of a given demographic that turns out to vote, and the share of the electorate is the percentage of all voters who belong to a given demographic. For example, in 2012, 61.8% of white voters turned out to vote in the presidential election (turnout rate), and in doing so they provided 74.1% of all voters who voted (share of the electorate).

One caveat is that for the purposes of this analysis, we are using demographic data that paints in broad strokes. The idea is not to recreate the granular approach modern analytics lets campaigns engage in, nor to take a deeper look at the battleground States for which the data may differ, but rather to provide some insight into the grand strategy of presidential campaigns. Because turnout it mid-term elections is different, we will only focus on presidential election years.

Rather than persuade the voting public, if the campaigns can depress turnout among demographics that favor their opponent, they will receive an advantage. That has long been the logic behind Republican voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect low-income, minority voters who tend to vote Democratic. On the other side, this time the Clinton campaign has tried to frame Trump as unacceptable to voters who usually vote Republican, in the hope that even though many categorically refuse to vote for her instead, they may simply opt to stay home.

Conversely, campaigns usually invest significant resources into getting out the vote among groups that favor them the most. Those efforts also include educating targeted voters on how to vote, and voter registration efforts in areas that will benefit them, as well as stoking anger or enthusiasm to drive voters to the polls.

In the end, whichever campaign can change the shape of the electorate in their favor the most, will have a big advantage towards winning.