It comes up most often when people consider the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), because when he’s asked whether his leftward policy positions might make it difficult to win over voters in the middle, he responds that he, more than anyone else, will excite Democrats and expand the electorate. You can’t do that with a milquetoast program of compromise and half-measures, he says; you need to offer a vision for transformative change.
Many people who are not Sanders disagree strongly, or at least, they disagree that he and his ideas can produce a wave of turnout large enough to overcome whatever weaknesses he has and defeat President Trump. The debate is often framed as persuasion vs. turnout: Either you take a centrist approach that will appeal to moderates, or you go to the left and mobilize nonvoters. This is an oversimplification in multiple ways, but there are reasons to be skeptical that Sanders has a unique ability to bring Democratic-leaning nonvoters to the polls.
There is no question that Sanders believes he can excite nonvoters. It’s also entirely possible that Sanders’s message of economic populism could win over some who might otherwise vote Republican; you’ve probably heard anecdotes about people who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary and then for Trump in the general election. This seems absurd only if you labor under the mistaken assumption that most Americans have clear and well-defined ideological views that match neatly with those of the two parties.
But I suspect the senator may be making a fundamental mistake in seeing the characteristics of his current support and assuming they will naturally scale up to the entire electorate. You can look out at a few thousand enthusiastic young people at one of your rallies, but does the fact that you’ve engaged them mean you can reverse the decades-old propensity of young people overall to vote at dramatically lower rates than their elders?
Perhaps he can. But, so far, it’s an unanswered question at best.
It’s important to note that Sanders doesn’t actually argue that he can spur increased turnout only because he takes more liberal positions than other Democrats. In truth, the issues are just a part of something simultaneously grander and more personal.
Sanders’s campaign has inspired a kind of devotion among a core group of his supporters that has no parallel among the other candidates. It might be going too far to call it a cult of personality, but it isn’t that far off. What voter is getting tattoos of Joe Biden’s or Pete Buttigieg’s face?
The problem, however, is that the intensity of Sanders’s base of support doesn’t mean much if it can’t be spread across the country in sufficient volume. If you’re trying to get 10 million or 20 million new people out to vote, it doesn’t really matter whether a different 2 million people would lay down their lives for you.
To be clear, this is a challenge for every candidate: Once one of them has secured the nomination, they’ll have to bring in the Democrats who supported someone else in the primaries, get those who only vote occasionally to the polls, register and turn out nonvoters and even win over some voters who have backed Republicans in the past.
And the aspects of a candidate that might help them in one of those areas may hurt them in another. One challenge Democrats will face is a kind of turnout backlash: If Republicans can successfully paint the Democratic nominee as a bringer of radical destruction, they could potentially get enough conservative nonvoters to counterbalance the liberal nonvoters that Democrats are able to mobilize.
This all happens against the background of a legal and procedural struggle that has profound effects on Election Day. Put simply, the Republican Party understands that its ability to win elections depends on shrinking the electorate, which they do by passing measures aimed at poor people, racial minorities, the young and any other group that might be more likely to vote for Democrats. It’s precisely in some of the states that are now red but could be blue if everyone voted — including Texas, Georgia and North Carolina — where Republicans in power have been the most aggressive in their efforts to suppress the vote.
At the same time, Democrats have moved aggressively in the opposite direction where they have gained power, instituting automatic voter registration, same-day registration and the restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions. The problem for the 2020 election is that Democrats don’t have control in enough swing states to remove all the barriers to voting that Republicans have worked so diligently to erect.
So achieving victory through a boost in turnout is far more complicated than whether a presidential candidate is inspiring. There are procedural impediments, widespread disaffection among some natural Democratic constituencies and the likelihood that Republicans will be just as enthusiastic about defending Trump as Democrats are about getting rid of him. Just as important, boosting turnout is a practical problem that has to be solved with time-consuming and labor-intensive work.
What Democrats would love to duplicate is the election of Barack Obama in 2008, when turnout rose to 61.6 percent, higher than it had been in four decades. Unfortunately, they likely won’t have a new, exciting, charismatic candidate in 2020, nor will they benefit from a less-inspiring Republican or a catastrophic economy. They’ll have to pound it out, voter by voter. It’s not going to be easy, no matter who their nominee is.