It’s All About Turnout

Many Americans are convinced that gerrymandering–while admittedly a bipartisan offense–  has operated since 2011 to given Republicans power vastly disproportionate to their vote margins. (If you don’t believe that, read Ratf***ked).

I for one am thrilled that the Supreme Court will take up the issue during its coming term, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the new statistical and analytical tools that can distinguish between purposeful game-playing and “luck of the draw” redistricting will persuade the court to abandon its prior reluctance to weigh in–a reluctance based largely upon the absence of such tools.

That said–and fingers crossed–David Leonhardt made a critically-important point in a recent New York Times column.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president. Even with Donald Trump’s working-class appeal, Clinton could have swept Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Democrats would control the Senate. Clinton or Barack Obama could then have filled the recent Supreme Court vacancy, and that justice would hold the tiebreaking vote on campaign finance, labor unions and other issues.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, the country would be doing more to address the two defining issues of our time — climate change and stagnant middle-class living standards.

Leonhardt’s point is important, and too often overlooked.

Even the most sophisticated gerrymandering is based upon prior voter turnout in the areas involved. If polling and survey research are correct, a majority of Americans hold progressive policy preferences–but large numbers of them don’t express those preferences at the polls. They don’t vote. To repeat the obvious, gerrymandering is based upon prior voting patterns.

I vividly remember conversations with John Sweezy, then the Marion County Republican Party Chair, back when I was a Republican. At the time (late 1970’s) Indianapolis/Marion County was safely Republican; it remained that way for thirty-two years. Even then, however, with the GOP in firm control of every local office, Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 3-2.  Had the same percentage of registered Democrats voted as Republicans, they’d have won those offices. As John said more than once, “Thank God, Democrats don’t vote.”

It’s all about turnout. Even supposedly “safe” legislative districts can be won by the “loser” party if that party can generate a sufficient increase in turnout.

There are all kinds of theories about why Democratic turnout lags that of the Republicans, and several of those theories have explanatory power. Right now, the more important question is: how do we motivate these voters? How do we convince them that their votes really can make a difference, that the game hasn’t been so rigged by gerrymandering and crazy Voter ID requirements and inconvenient polling places and the like that it just isn’t worth the effort?

As Leonhardt says,

What can be done? First, don’t make the mistake of blaming everything on nefarious Republicans. Yes, Republicans have gerrymandered districts and shamefully suppressed votes (and Democrats should keep pushing for laws that make voting easier). But the turnout gap is bigger than any Republican scheme.

Second, keep in mind that turnout is a human-behavior problem. It involves persuading people to change long-established habits. And there is a powerful force uprooting all kinds of habits today: digital technology.

More specifically, smartphones are changing how people interact with information. I’d encourage progressives in Silicon Valley to think of voting as a giant realm ripe for disruption. Academic research by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and others has shown that peer pressure can lift turnout. Smartphones are the most efficient peer-pressure device ever invented, but no one has figured out how social media or texting can get a lot more people to the polls — yet.

Even a really good gerrymandering decision from the Supreme Court will be followed by years of state-level game-playing and obstruction–in both red and blue states. But we can work on turnout right now.

Democrats don’t have to “peel off” Republican voters, a tactic that failed to deliver Tuesday in Georgia. We just have to get the people who already agree with us to the polls.


  1. I hear you, Sheila!

    Before the voting for the presidential election, there was not a single phone call or postcard before the day or a call made to me to me to inform me of the voting location or tooffer transportation on the day either from Demo headquarters or the precinct.

    When I arrived at my voting place, I found that (again) the banister on the ramp leading the voting area was missing. The ramp is steep and has rough concrete flooring. At the entrance chunks were missing from the aged linoleum. I, who am 88, was fearful that I would fall.

    There was not a single person ahead of me in line.

    The voting booths were placed haphazardly and faced out so that anyone could monitor the voting. Someone, a deputy of whatever he was called, DID. He said he wanted to help me.

    I really dread going back!


  2. Quite correct. It’s instructive that the South Carolina special election that received little fanfare and/or monetary input was taken by the Republicans by only a 2% margin. The Dem. base has to be engaged and motivated in every district, not just those which prior voting records (notoriously unreliable) indicate opportunity to the leadership.

  3. The Republicans have a base and the Democrats don’t. It is that simple. R’ s will vote for the R and D’s will fracture into 1000 little groups and then demand loyalty tests of the candidate before they even consider voting for said candidate. And to make it even worse, each camp will claim to be the “heart and soul” of the party and threaten to stay home on election day when they don’t get 100% of what they demand. No wonder they don’t win any more.

  4. I would bet that Hubert Humphrey or Joe Biden at the head of the ticket would have brought more Democrats to the voting booth. Why? Because they campaign like real Democrats. They walk, talk and think like working class people, not just for women and children. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may have gotten out the vote better, also. Party leadership made a loser’s mistake by focusing on making history with the first female president instead of winning votes.

  5. Does anyone know when Dem voter turnout started to lag in Indiana, or elsewhere? Did it start 25-30 years ago when the auto industry started contracting and auto parts supplier factories started closing or sending their jobs to Mexico- thus ending union jobs?

    It seems to me that the blue collar voters were closely tied to factories and unions and voted mostly for Dem candidates. If I am correct, then how do we organize voters without the help and power of unions?

    The Rs have utilized fear and propaganda to rile up their voters and get them to the polls, even if most of their blather is based upon lies. How do we, as Ds, get the attention of voters without using disgusting lies as propaganda?

  6. This goes to the heart of the problem with Democrat voter turnout. The problem is not the Republican organization and turnout; it is the Democrat Party lack of organization on the ground and thus poor turnout.

    Maryjo is right in her observations. During the last presidential election where were the foot soldiers for the Democrats? The canvassers? The precinct committee people? Where was the candidate herself? While the doughnut county Republicans have members with the time and money, and too often the place (church meeting hall), to build a powerful organization, Democrats in the more urban areas often lack those resources and will have to work all the more harder and smarter to level the field. But it can be done!

    Just one question: how do we KNOW that there are more Democrats?

  7. For many years I’ve heard people say there’s no one worth voting for, so why bother? That is why Bernie Sanders did so well. He electrified a lot of, particularly, younger voters. When the DNC screwed him, a lot of potential votes faded away. Clinton was a lousy candidate, with a lousy background. The decisions of the DNC drove many to support Trump as he was seen (wrongly) as an anti-establishment candidate. That hurt the down ticket as we had an excellent set of Indiana Democrat candidates. Remember that Sanders beat Clinton in good old red state Indiana, and, as was the case in many states, our “Super delegates” voted for Clinton anyway at the national convention, telling many Sanders supporters they didn’t matter. Gerrymandering is bad policy, and I hope the SCOTUS breaks it’s back, but Sanders showed that an honest candidate taking positions that help improve the lives of the average person can raise enough money without corporate contributions and actually win office and take this nation in a positive direction CAN win and CAN bring out the voters. Give us someone worth voting for and we’ll have a better turnout.

  8. Neal Smith seems to prove my point. R’s go and support their candidate no matter what. Dems need something proven to them before the vote. R’s not only understand how to win, they know it is the only thing that matters… it is that simple.

  9. Maryjo and others:

    Perhaps here is an explanation of why you didn’t receive any calls or help to get to the voting booth. I’ve attached an article from today’s Fort Wayne Journal Gazette newspaper.

    Volunteering for a political party takes an enormous amount of time and effort – Time and effort that most citizens just cannot afford or don’t have the energy left after a long day at work. It seems that most of us want others to give of themselves while we sit at home and complain that no one is doing anything about the lack of Dem participation.

  10. After reading a few additional comments on today’s post I want to emphasize that unless YOU are willing and able to put forth time and effort to help the Democratic party and candidates YOU should stop complaining!

  11. Bernie supporters aren’t going to like this, but you don’t achieve anything by taking your ball and going home. If you want to take over the Democratic Party, go ahead and do it. It’s ripe for a take-over and it starts at the local level. Harboring resentments over how Bernie was treated doesn’t help anyone.

    As to the point of today’s blog, I said it yesterday. I’ve said it multiple times in this space, when 43% of ELIGIBLE voters don’t vote, we get what THEY deserve. That’s nearly 120 million people who couldn’t be bothered.

  12. Mary Jo; my experience was the opposite of yours, last November I was only 79:-) I parked in the grassy area at the side of a large health care facility near the back of the building; walked around to the front to stand in a line more than 1 block long to the door. Inside was packed with people coming in with the line and others trying to get out; security was escorting a woman on crutches out of the voting area through the crowd, two people with her followed. The security guard sat her in a chair and called someone on his cell phone. Got inside the voting area to find 4 tables crammed together with hand written signs designating voting areas. Signed in, received my ballot and started struggling through people and and tables and between voting booths for an empty one, marked my ballot and looked for the ballot machine when a poll worker took me by my upper right arm, the arm I use to maintain my balance with my cane, making it difficult for me to walk. She didn’t notice my struggle but propelled me to a ballot machine which rejected my ballot. She was quite upset that I had inserted my ballot a second time before she could stop me, it was again rejected. She again took my upper right arm, told the man behind me not to insert his ballot till she returned (would/did it accept his?) and propelled me to the second ballot machine which accepted my ballot.

    I am still wondering if my vote was counted. As I was leaving, security was escorting the woman on crutches and her two friends back through the crowd into the voting area. I was very glad to see the heavy turnout but was hoping it was others, like myself, who had seen all of the “Trump for President” yard signs and hoped to overcome their vast numbers. I have voted in every election since my first time in 1958; I am still wondering if my vote counted last November.

  13. Peggy; have you yet found an of those Bernie supporters who understood when you tried to tell them, as did Bernie himself, to stand together with him to support Hillary. The same explanation fell on deaf ears of those voting for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson; do you suppose any of them realize that they elected Trump?

  14. You want people to turn out? Give them candidates worth supporting and voting for.

    If the DNC continues to offer Republicans in drag,they should expect a lack of support for those candidates.

    JoAnn,the only folks that voted for Trump are those that voted for him. Your tenuous attempt to vilify those that made a differing choice than yours is well….Very narcissistic.

    Blame,blame,blame…..OMG ,Russia! OMG, Republicans! Support Democrat candidates even if they’re beholden to lobbyists and against my best interests. Because brand loyalty is all that matters.

    That isn’t exactly workin’ out ; )

    43% are not showing up for good reason. The DNC chose to lose with Hillary than win with Bernie….Because in reality,the Democrat Party really doesn’t want universal healthcare,et al. The DNC doesn’t really want to address climate change. The DNC has chosen to protect the donor and investor class to the detriment of its own principles. You’re not going to change the party by continuing to vote for donor approved candidates.

  15. Wasn’t the election of 2008 historic? Meaning historic number of people voting? We need to find a candidate that gets people out of the house to vote. That’s one point.

    Second, we need to make it easier to vote! We should all be automatically registered when we turn 18. No need to register.

    Third, we need mail in ballots. That will get people to do it at home, in their free time and free postage. There is your Paper Trail.

    Fourth – we need the fourth estate to do their damn job. How about listing the candidates and their agenda and publish it in a special newspaper sent to every home in the district.

    Make voting day a holiday is another idea or vote on weekends like the rest of the world.

    Criminals still pay taxes, they should be allowed to vote.

    Make it mandatory to vote, like Australia.

    Gerrymandering outlawed.
    Those are my suggestions.

    I know, I’m just a dreamer.

  16. Just send me a post card when people finally stop talking about Bernie… I am sure that will be after Trump’s second term, and the next Republican President is inaugurated – maybe even longer.

  17. I’ve noticed that Republicans ultimately rally around one candidate (whether good, bad, or ugly) simply because they abhor the idea of Democrats winning; whereas, Democrats argue on and on among themselves about candidates’ perceived purity on a growing list of criteria. Progressive Democrats are recognized for their encouraging ‘diversity’ but not so much for encouraging ‘unity’.

    A sense of unity is a voting magnet.

  18. Did you see and hear GOP leader Mitch McConnell say regarding pushing through the Trumpcare bill without hearings because hearings would enable Democrat congresspeople to introduce endless “single payer amendments”.
    The American people want insurance companies OUT of the equation because insurance is a pseudo bureaucratic profit center having nothing to do with health.
    We the people want a single payer system better than Canada’s or Israel’s. Ideally it should be a ”
    right”, not an “entitlement” with the efficiency of the GOP-threatened Social Security System.
    We also want the GOP to stop punishing the poorest among us as exemplified by the Trumpcare bill, dead in the doorway, being released this morning, a killer bill that will bring misery to millions of Americans.
    On the bright side, it has no hope for passage in its present form.
    The Body Politic has already passed Obamacare into law. Why does the Orange Ogre assert that “Obamacare is Dead”?

  19. Back to the topic, “It’s All About Turnout” and building on what I mentioned earlier, a needed sense of Democrat party unity, have we considered that party unity and voter turnout are related to direct civic engagement, to the individual’s investment in his/her community (both local and national), and to a degree of patriotism (not nationalism) that nudges the voter toward the polling place on election day?

  20. I was a Bernie supporter, and I had absolutely no problem with switching my allegiance to Hillary when she was nominated, as I expected she’d be. The problem is, when Democrats get mad, they sulk, pout and don’t vote, while, when Republicans get mad, they do vote. The prospect of Trump as president was more than sufficient to motivate me. So is the realization that there are Rs trying to keep me from voting. That just makes me more determined to do so.

  21. I have said it before. People do not have to have trouble parking or finding the voting booth. For several years many in my neighborhood have used absentee ballots. They seem to work very well and there is no problems. You contact them by phone or email, they send you the ballot and you fill it out and return it in their envelope. I expect it to be received as much as you expect yours to be received, and it looks like part of you are not even sure yours was received or counted even when you were there in person.

  22. Elections have always been about turnout. After all of our long-winded speeches and arguments on the issues real or imagined it all comes down to that great leveler – arithmetic. It has long been known that there are many more Democrats than Republicans eligible to vote and still are in the majority in spite of voter suppression, gerrymandering etc., all of which means nothing if they don’t show up on election day. The good news is that with a clueless, Wall Street loving sexual predator at the helm, Democrats may finally respond by abandoning the couch on election day and, among other things, save our tattered democracy from oblivion. Trump is our best campaigner and things are looking up if we don’t self-destruct under his leadership before we have an opportunity to correct the ghastly mistake last fall. Meanwhile, we must keep beating the drum and telling the truth to those wed to the couch and to anyone else who must be tiring of the spin and lying these days.

  23. Frankly I didn’t know until today that turnout was that critical an issue.

    To me what it reinforces is the success of anger and fear sold by pervasive mass media fake news. It’s great advertising which means that it’s effective propaganda. Emotion motivates.

    Unfortunately liberals will always be less susceptible to it than conservatives on the average due to intellectual vs emotional perspectives. Also as the country follows the unavoidable economic decline from the combination of Republican alligiance to oligarchy, incompetence, the past rather than the future, and the disassembly of balanced economic systems, their ability to sell fear and anger among those who they dis-serve, workers, will increase.

    Once conditions conspire to the end of an awful accident it’s usually too late to prevent it.

    Good Americans can’t be blamed for hoping for hope; for a reprieve, for a way back to the path that has led to success. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean there is one.

    The states paying everyone’s bills, the NE and West coasts, are stuck in place. We can’t unite as we had to in the Civil War when the failing economies withdrew from the Union. Economic failure in the absence of effective political cures doesn’t miraculously end, it fails.

    I’m in on any strategy that seems hopeful but I’m also hunkering down.

  24. It’s long been the case that Republican candidates and officeholders appeal to their base time and time again. By contrast, Democratic candidates and officeholders feel they have to appeal to Republicans to gain or maintain power. So it’s no surprise that Democrats have more difficulty turning out their base.

    Added to that is the difficulty poorer voters have in registering to vote and getting to the polls during work hours. If you have no computer, don’t know how to find registration information, and don’t know your precinct commiteeperson, those become important barriers to voting.

    If you have to depend on others for transportation and receive no workplace accommodation in hours on election day, those can be huge disincentives to voting.
    These voters could vote absentee, but many don’t know how to do that or where to call.

    Mary Jo commented above that no one called her to offer transportation or assistance.
    I hope SHE will call the Democratic headquarters to make arrangements for both next election season. We can hope and wait on others to anticipate our needs OR we can take charge and make the call to seek needed assistance, learn who the precinct committeeperson is in our precinct, and make that acquaintenance AND arrangements for election day assistance. I called hundreds of voters before and on election day to determine who needed assistance. So did dozens of other volunteers. I’m sorry we missed Mary Jo.

  25. I disagree with Pete wrt the susceptibility of liberals to emotional rhetoric. As self professed “political entrepreneur” Rachel Maddow has been doing for months is nothing more than empty emotional rhetoric. Even if Russia had interfered with the election, their effort pales in comparison to the actions by the US (The Mecca of Democracy) wrt Mosaddegh and Allende.

    I can’t think of a time where the Democrats have run such a vapid response to the election as the one continued to be used today; OMG,RUSSIA!!

    OMG,Russia! This vacuous message doesn’t upset the donor class,so I guess it IS useful when your party has no real platform or substance. Conservatives (no matter how batshit crazy) mean what they say. Democrats….will say anything to be elected and supported, then summarily act as a Republican.Then the party wonders “Why isn’t the public supporting us?”

    Russia is not even in the top ten of the problems our representatives should be dealing with, does not deserve their outrage, and is a distraction from them NOT doing their actual job.

  26. Offering them a public campaign funding system they will control will bring the voters out (bigly). If we Progressives will empower them, the voters will empower us.

  27. Too good. This needed to be shared with the readership here.

    An Excerpt: “So no, I’m not sorry he lost. The Tea Party didn’t take over the Republican Party—and rise to national power—by celebrating the victories of its adversaries. And in the struggle for control—or if you want to be poetic, for “the soul”—of the Democratic Party, we need to be clear not just on what we stand for, but on who stands against us.”

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