Asking Americans whether they plan to vote is not always the most predictive exercise. You get on the phone with someone hoping to pick your brain for polling purposes, and they ask you whether you plan to vote ... well, how would you respond? No one wants to admit they're at fault for low turnout, or that the fuzzy wuzzy feeling you get after being handed a "I Voted" sticker wasn't reason enough to compel them to the polls. So they say, "Of course I'm certain to vote."
The polls come back showing that so many people plan on voting that we could see turnout not seen since 1900!
And then Election Day comes and goes, and we once again shake our head at the apathy of American voters.
Those seeming distortions are at play in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Seventy-four percent of registered voters say they are certain to vote during the midterm election.
In 2010, 41 percent of registered voters turned out. Hmm.
It's important to note that people who respond to pollster calls are also more likely to vote in the first place, so many of the respondent may turnout out this year. And, the question may function best as a gauge of how interested voters are in the election now, not as a prediction of turnout. This measure of public opinion works best as one of many ways to measure interest in the election.
And if you drill down and look at how different demographics responded to this question, the recent poll did find something interesting when it comes to the young and minority voters.
In April, when we asked registered voters if they were going to vote this November, 53 percent of young people said they were absolutely certain they would. Fifty-five percent of non-white voters said they were absolutely certain to vote.
Seventy-three percent of white registered voters and 79 percent of registered voters over 65 -- the demographics that traditionally turn out in larger numbers during midterms -- said they were certain to vote.
Two months later, interest in voting seemingly jumped for young and minority voters. Sixty-six percent of registered voters aged 18 to 39 say they are certain to vote this November -- up 13 percentage points from April.
Sixty-seven percent of minority voters say they are absolutely certain to vote -- up 12 percentage points from April. Both of the jumps are statistically significant.
Five percent more white voters were absolutely certain they would vote in the June poll. The numbers on voters over 65 didn't budge.
For some reason, the young and the minorities are far more interested in this election than they were a month ago. Are the voter registration efforts starting to percolate around the country causing the uptick? Are these voters excited about Benghazi and the Department of Veterans Affairs? Is talk of the environment or income inequality on the national level piquing their interest? Could it be something else completely unrelated? Some explanations make more sense than others, but regardless of the reason, the current political climate has these voters thinking more about November than usual. And while measures of voter intention aren't always accurate in scale, it's important to watch the trend, and young and minority voters are trending upward.
Does that mean that young and minority voters might turn out this year? And does this mean that Democrats — the party toward which these demographics lean — stand a better chance this fall?
Nah, probably not.
First of all, as John Sides and several others point out, getting Democrats out to vote during midterms might not be the party's golden ticket. Other factors — like which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing — have a stronger pull on electoral results than the Democratic turnout deficiency.
While a dismally low 41 percent of Americans voted in the 2010 midterms, only 24 percent of people ages 18 to 29 did (which misses out on the decade-worth of people polled in the Post-ABC News poll, but even if you added in the next tier, it would still be low). A survey published by the Harvard Institute of Politics in late April showed that only 23 percent of voters under 30 were going to "definitely" vote. Among that group, conservative 20-somethings are 10 percentage points more likely to vote than liberal 20-somethings. Only 19 percent of black and Hispanic voters under 30 said they were definitely going to vote.
Minority voters are also unlikely to turn out in greater numbers this year, if the historical trend holds. Non-white voters have seen their share of the electorate grow the past few decades, but the growth seems especially poky if you isolate turnout to midterm years, as this chart from the Cook Political Report shows.
And even though more minority and young voters are saying they plan to vote this year, they still trail behind the demographics they've trailed behind in turnout for ages. Young and minority voters are making slow gains in turnout every year, but until they become as unreasonably optimistic about their chances of voting as everyone else, change is going to come to the American electorate at its usual sedate pace.