November 8, 2012

How big was turnout anyway?

Compared to many Third World countries, America has a ramshackle voting system, which makes it hard to tell what just happened. A few days after the election, informed observers can disagree on basic questions like: did more people vote this time than last time? In Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende (pronounced Tren-day) argues that white turnout may have declined by 7 million, but Nat Cohn in The New Republic is dubious about Trende's numbers.

If you have an insight into this question, let me know.


Reg Cæsar said...

Doesn't mention turnout, but the New Yorker blog alludes to the marriage gap.

My own back-of-the-envelope (literally) calculation: Romney's share of the white vote was about the same as Ike's and FDR's-- in their best years!

Londoner said...

Three consecutive two-term presidencies - has that ever happened before? I guess Roosevelt -Truman-Eisenhower and Eisenhower-Kennedy/Johnson-Nixon both almost qualify, but for the intervention of death. Does this trend imply an overall decline in the quality of presidential candidates, i.e. incumbents need only sit tight these days, whereas in the past genuine challengers emerged more frequently? Anecdotally this feels right, although I guess every generation tends to feel this way.

Reg Cæsar said...

Three consecutive two-term presidencies... --Londoner

Not to mention the three worst presidents, ever. 24 years in the toilet.

"Overall decline" is typical British understatement!

Cail Corishev said...

Something that occurred to me after the fact is that so much of the focus was on Romney, the challenger. I think normally there's more focus on the incumbent, because he has four years of track record to tout or criticize. But in this case, there wasn't much about Obama's record for Democrats to trumpet, and Republicans can't bring themselves to attack a black man. So both sides focused much more on Romney's pros and cons.

The problem with that is, to get people to overturn the status quo, you have to get them upset about it. It's not enough to say "our guy is better." For all that people claim to dislike negative campaigning, it's necessary to point out the negatives if you're trying to get someone out of office.

As for three incumbents winning in a row, it could just be coincidence. Clinton won because the GOP put up a terrible challenge, giving it to the guy whose turn it was, as usual. (I mean, in hindsight, Dole/Kemp? Really?) Bush won because we were at war, and although few people remember it, he was still pretty popular then. And the Democrats picked a horrible candidate. (Again: Kerry? Really? I can't even remember his running mate.) And Obama won on reverse racism and nearly total media cover.

Three fairly different circumstances, so I'm not sure it indicates anything except that people aren't fed up enough yet.

Hal K said...

Steve, can you please take a look at the white vote for Romney in 2012 vs. the white vote for McCain in 2008? I think they are about the same, at 54 million in either case. The real story is that millions of whites who voted for Obama in 2008 stayed home in 2012. I think this has important implications for the Republican Party.

Ed said...

Its very difficult to get a good read on either turnout or even the national popular vote from the network coverage, even on their websites.

Actually, Wikipedia has been good about posting the voting numbers as they come in, and I've been turning to them more and more. You have to flip back and forth between their 2012 presidential election article and their 2008 presidential election article to get a sense of whether turnout has dropped. It appears that there are still uncounted ballots for the 2012 election.

In 2008, Obama got 69.5 million votes. His current total for 2012 is 60.6 million votes, a drop of at least 8 million votes.

In 2008, McCain got 59.4 million votes. Romney in 2012 got 57.8 million votes (plus?) so he will likely finish with a lower vote total than McCain.

Fringe party and write-in candidates appear to have gotten an aggregate of 1.9 million votes in both elections.

Turnout in 2008 was 61.4%, in 2012, and Wikipedia estimates turnout for 2008 at between 57.5% and 60%. The point is that Obama's vote total dropped by 8 million votes, with Romney losing maybe another million or so votes off of McCain's total.

Its curious that in the U.S., the unpopularity of both the Democratic and Republican nominees comes out more in abstentions than in votes for the fringe parties, though I have a theory that the bipartisan Democratic-Republican election boards throw out alot of votes cast for other than the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Ed said...

Londoner, John Michael Grier the Archdruid (yes, he is actually a druid, but he runs a popular website of social commentary) has a theory that the Democrats and the Republicans have an agreement to hand the White House back and forth between each party every eight years.

I have to admit that the history of US presidential elections since 1992, which consists of three weak incumbents prevailing weakly against three even weaker challengers, supports this.

As for runs of consecutive two term presidencies, the strongest precedent was the 1801-25 "Virginia Dynasty", when presidential electors weren't chosen by popular vote. Otherwise there is FDR's four consecutive elections, and as you pointed out you can get 1953-74 or 77 if you count LBJ's 1964 victory as really the re-election of JFK. However, by all accounts (of whatever ideological complexion) the federal government was much better run between the 1930s and 1970s than it has been in recent decades.

In the nineteenth century many people thought that the incumbent President even running for a second term made the office too powerful, and you did have alot of more or less voluntary one term presidencies, so this throws off the analysis.

DPG said...

Romney lost this election back in June/July when the Obama campaign floated story after story about Romney to the media.

People who didn't follow the news closely wouldn't have known much about Mitt, so that's when the public's general opinion of him was being shaped. It could have gone two different directions:

1) He's a supremely competent executive, a turnaround artist of large organizations private and public; and personally a generous and devout family man.

2) He's a cold-hearted vulture capitalist, an elitist who condescends the common man and cares nothing for marginalized groups.

I think there is truth in both. Romney is brilliant, competent and morally upstanding, but he probably doesn't care much for groups that depend on government. The Obama campaign made sure that voters viewed him as the latter.

Kiwiguy said...


The Project ORCA disaster wouldn't have helped turnout.

Anonymous said...

Some food for thought: does anyone here figure Romney was the victim of a "Bradley effect" except in terms of religion, not race?

I sort of suspect a lot of (white) people couldn't bring themselves to vote for a Mormon.

That would explain some of the missing Republican voters.

Just a thought....

Andrew said...

The problem of missing white voters is not too hard to figure out.  Look at which large states have a lot less votes than in 2008 that are primarily white.  This points to about 500,000 fewer whites voting in each of the following states - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, 250,000 fewer whites in Missouri and Indiana.  That is 3 million.  A number of smaller states seem to have about 100,000 fewer votes each, like Maryland and Oklahoma, which may account for another 1 million.  The rest of the missing voters are probably in California, which looks like it will be a few million votes short of its 2008 turnout when it is done tallying votes.  The only state the missing voters could have made any difference in was Pennsylvania.  The voters are probably missing because these states were not contested, and also because of effects from Hurrican Sandy in the northeast.

The whole problem is overblown and is not why Romney lost.

The exit polls provide a snapshot of state's ideological divides.  Romney only won states where the Conservative vs. Liberal population share in ideology was 18% or more, because Romney lost the moderate middle.  The following states have between 4 and 18% more conservatives than liberals, and a share of liberals that is 21 to 27% vs. a share of conservatives of 31 to 37% while moderates are 38 to 45%.  In order from most conservative to least they are Iowa, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Michigan, Colorda, Virginia, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.  To win, you just need conservatives and between 33% and 48% of moderates.

The moderate middle he could have won, but did not, can be defined as middle class casually or non-religious whites, plus a marginal amount of white Catholics and midwestern mainline Protestants (mainly Luthern and Methodist) and as a grouping, predominantly white, and skewed female.  Many of them are trade union workers, public school teachers, and local government workers.  Romney's vote share among religious whites was 55% and up to about 65% minimum for most protestants.  Among the non-religious, it was 20-30%.  Non-religious whites were 10% of voters, so the drop from 65% to 25% is 4% of the electorate, and Catholics in these areas were around 20% of the electorate and he got 55% of them vs. 65% of Protestants.  That is another 3% given up.  These voters were enough to move every swing state, and thus the election, to Romney.  Their economic concerns were unemployment, high prices, and health care.  It should be patently obvious why a man belonging to a bizzare religious cult who had made his living as a financial plutocrat and running on platform of more tax cuts for the wealthy and reducing the scale of government employment was not going to get their vote.

Anonymous said...

Londoner points to 3 consecutive two-term presidencies as perhaps a new phenomenon. What is new is that sitting presidents have the ability to completely annihilate any possible primary competition before it materializes.

The last time a sitting president was challenged in the primaries was '92 when G W Bush had to put up with Buchanan - who won zero primaries but was later blamed by some for Bush's defeat. Since then, presidential primary challenges have been verboten.

sunbeam said...

I always thought someone gave Pat Buchanan a good talking to in '92.

He was doing pretty well if memory serves, then he popped up in Arizona wearing that Howdy Doody cowboy outfit.

Hal K said...

I created a blog entry with a table of vote totals by race for 2008 and 2012. It is at 2008 and 2012 Election Vote Totals by Race.

Based on these new calculations, it looks like I was wrong when I said Romney got 54 million white votes in 2012. This is because the 54 million number for Romney was partly based on the Trende numbers. The numbers at my blog entry are based on other sources. If someone wants to suggest a more definitive source of information, feel free, but I don't know of any. It looks like Romney got about 2 million fewer white votes than McCain, while Obama's white vote dropped about 7 million.