Why voter turnout in 2012 is likely to be down

October 31, 2012

With less than a week to go in the 2012 election, voters are less enthusiastic about casting ballots than they were in either of the last two presidential elections, according to a new Gallup poll.

The numbers suggest that there could well be a dropoff in voter turnout on Election Day.

According to Gallup's numbers, 85 percent of poll respondents say they have given at least some thought to the election. That's down from 90 percent in 2004 and 87 percent in 2008.


Similarly, when voters are asked about how likely they are to cast a ballot, 83 percent rate themselves a "10" on a scale of 1 to 10. That's down from 89 percent in 2004 and 86 percent in 2008. (For the record, people generally over-inflate their likelihood of voting, which is why all of these numbers are so high.)

While the numbers are down from the last two elections, they are actually significantly higher than they were in the two preceding elections, 1996 and 2000. That suggests that, while turnout might be down, it's unlikely to be a huge dropoff.

(One factor that could counteract a dropoff in turnout: the increase in the number of people voting early. The more opportunities people have to vote, the more likely they are to vote.)

The Gallup numbers are generally a pretty good predictor of turnout. The 2004 and 2008 elections both had at least a 57 percent turnout (of the voting-age population), while 1996 and 2000 lagged significantly behind (49 percent and 51 percent, respectively).

Political science generally tells us that high turnout favors Democrats, while lower turnout favors Republicans. That's because more people identify as Democrats than Republicans, and Democratic constituencies are more prone to staying home if they aren't interested. This is a big reason why Democrats generally spend so much time and money on their ground game.

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, said Sunday that there was some concern that low turnout spurred by Hurricane Sandy could negatively impact Obama's reelection chances.

“Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls, because we believe that the more people come out, the better we’re going to do,” Axelrod said. “And so, to the extent that it makes it harder, that’s a source of concern.”

Whether due to Sandy (which some are suggesting could lower turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia and help Republicans in Pennsylvania) or lower voter enthusiasm, it seems likely we'll see a dropoff of some kind. The question from there is whether it's enough to matter.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · October 31, 2012