Fool’s Gold of the Left: Misplaced Hope for Voter Turnout

Fool’s Gold of the Left: Misplaced Hope for Voter Turnout

Who are the nonvoters? Although they can be found in every stratum of society, there is no doubt they are disproportionately poor, less educated, black, and Hispanic—generally viewed as liberal and Democratic-leaning groups. Moreover, this bias, at least in terms of class, has been getting worse over time. Since nonvoters are now over half the potential (age-eligible) electorate, even in presidential elections (they are almost two-thirds in off-year elections), these well-known characteristics of nonvoters have led many on the left to conclude that the key to realigning American politics is getting more of them to the polls. More nonvoters voting would mean substantially more voters who are liberal-leaning, which would mean, in turn, substantially more liberal politics and politicians.

A simple and compelling story. Too bad it’s wrong—not only wrong, but positively harmful. Increasing turnout is the fool’s gold of the left and diverts attention from the real challenge faced by any sort of progressive politics: winning over more white, working-class voters to the side of active, strong government. But as long as people on the left can convince themselves that getting more of those pesky nonvoters to the polls will solve America’s political problems, they can avoid this rather thorny and uncomfortable challenge.

There are a number of reasons why a strategy based on generally increasing turnout just won’t work (in the sense of producing substantially more liberal political outcomes), including: (1) the nonvoting pool, while not a faithful representation of the entire population, is hardly a monolith of the disadvantaged; (2) partisan biases by class, especially compared to other countries, are not overwhelming (biases in political attitudes even less so), so the relatively poor and less educated nature of the nonvoting pool doesn’t make it as liberal as people generally suppose; (3) nonvoters’ policy preferences, controlled for demographics, are remarkably similar to voters’; (4) nonvoters are particularly likely to disregard partisan and other preferences and surge in the direction of the candidate who appears to be winning; and (5) for mathematical reasons, it is a great deal easier to change an election outcome by switching the preferences of existing voters than by adding new voters. (All of these points are developed in detail in my 1992 Brookings book, The Disappearing American Voter.)

Defenders of the turnout thesis might say, “OK, maybe general mobilization of nonvoters won’t do the trick, so we’ll be selective. Instead of trying to bring all the nonvoters to the polls, we’ll concentrate on expanding the Democratic/liberal base: union household members, blacks, and Hispanics [currently about one-third of all voters].” But this strategy also faces severe limitations.

Take union household voters: increasing their turnout rates would surely be an unambiguous good for progressives...