Democrats Must Mobilize America’s Largest Political Party: Nonvoters

(Photo: AP/Jon Elswick)

Voters cast ballots at Oakdale Elementary School in Frederick, Maryland, on November 8, 2016.

When all the votes are counted, it is likely that Hillary Clinton will have two million more votes than Donald Trump. Among those who voted, Clinton beat Trump by about 1.5 percentage points, a larger margin that several victorious presidential candidates, including John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Richard Nixon in 1968. But the Electoral College determines the outcome of U.S. presidential elections, so winning the popular vote is small solace for Clinton and her supporters. The first female candidate with a serious shot at winning the presidency lost most of the key battleground states she need to win. How and why did that happen?

What’s missing from most mainstream analyses is that the largest political party in Tuesday’s election was the “Nonvoters Party,” a nationally known group that usually posts strong numbers in American elections. People who did not cast a ballot represented 41.6 percent of all eligible voters, compared with the 27.5 percent of all eligible voters who went for Clinton and the 26.7 percent who supported Trump. While Clinton won a larger share of the popular vote than Trump, the two of them together only inspired 54.2 percent of eligible voters to cast a ballot. (About two million votes—mostly from California, where Clinton has a big edge—have not yet been counted, so these figures will be slightly revised, but the overall trend is unlikely to change.)

Here are the numbers:
All eligible voters: 231,556,622
All registered voters: 146,311,000 (63.1 percent of eligible voters)
Votes cast: 135,180,362 (58.4 percent)
Did not vote: 97,019,022 (41.6 percent)
Votes for Hillary Clinton: 63,759,985 (27.5 percent)
Votes for Donald Trump: 62,005,118 (26.7 percent)
Votes for other candidates: 7,087,495 (3.0 percent)

About 58.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots this year, roughly the same as the 58.6 percent in 2012 and down from 61.6 percent in 2008. Some voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 switched to Trump in 2016. But vote-switching was not the main culprit in Clinton’s defeat. Turnout among white working-class voters in Republican areas increased slightly, while turnout among key Democratic constituencies declined, especially in battleground states.  

In 2008, Obama received 69.5 million votes to John McCain’s 59.9 million. Four years later, Obama garnered 65.9 million votes; while Romney raked in 60.9 million. Clinton is likely to have slightly more than 64 million votes compared with Trump’s 62 million. The election turned on the fact that Clinton had two million fewer votes than Obama, particularly in key battleground states.

Who comprises the Nonvoters Party? They are mostly young people, poor people, and people of color. Data for the 2016 presidential contest is still being compiled, but figures for the 2012 race shows that 31 percent of nonvoters were 18- to 29-years-old; 61 percent of nonvoters earned less than $50,000 a year, and roughly 22 percent of nonvoters were people of color. The nonvoters work at Walmart, fast-food restaurants, hotels, and poultry factories. A significant number of them don’t have health insurance. Many attend community colleges and universities. Most of them rent their apartments and some lost their homes to foreclosure.    

Low turnout in the presidential election does not bode well for the 2018 midterm elections, which typically see a dropoff in voting. Only 40.9 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted in 2012, lower than all other age groups. In the 2014 midterm elections, the turnout level for young people sunk even lower, to an abysmal 16.3 percent. Only 43.1 percent of eligible Latinos went to the polls in 2012, and their turnout fell even further, to 21.1 percent, two years later. In 2012, African American turnout skyrocketed to 67.4 percent, primarily because Obama was running for re-election; but in 2014, many stayed home, and black turnout plummeted to 36.4 percent.

Nonvoters are considerably more liberal than the rest of the population. This shouldn’t be surprising, since young, poor, and minority Americans are more liberal—and more inclined to vote for Democrats than most eligible voters. In a 2015 article, “Regular Voters, Marginal Voters and the Electoral Effects of Turnout,” Anthony Fowler, a University of Chicago political scientist, found that “marginal” or irregular voters were 20 percent more likely to support Democratic candidates than “regular” voters. He concluded that “election results do not always reflect the preferences of the citizenry, because the marginal citizens who may stay home have systematically different preferences than those who participate.”

So if more nonvoters went to the polls, the election results would likely have been dramatically different: Hillary Clinton would have won by a large margin, both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. Turnout among college students and in low-income and minority urban areas probably would have increased, giving Clinton victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and perhaps in Florida and Ohio, too. It is understandable why conservatives, Republicans, and big-business groups do what they can to suppress the vote among these groups, with voter-ID laws, felon disenfranchisement laws, reductions in the number of polling places in minority and low-income areas, and a variety of tactics that make it difficult to vote.

Clinton was supposed to win Wisconsin, but it turned out to be a battleground, with Trump beating Clinton by a mere 27,000 votes out of more than 2.94 million votes cast. Statewide, Trump received about the same number of voters as Mitt Romney in 2012, but Clinton received almost 240,000 fewer votes than Obama. The statewide decline in voter turnout was particularly devastating in Democratic strongholds. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature adopted tougher voter-registration laws, including a requirement that voters provide a photo ID to vote. This election law change had a chilling effect in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which has a large African American and low-income population. According to Neil Albrecht, the Milwaukee Election Commission’s executive director, voter turnout in that city declined by 41,000 people between 2012 and 2016, with most of the drop-off coming in high-poverty districts. Voter-watchdog groups also said that Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles officials gave incorrect information to people seeking to obtain a photo-ID card.

The prevalence of nonvoting challenges the widely discussed notion that Trump’s victory means that a majority of Americans voted for a racist, sexist demagogue. Only 26.7 percent of America’s 231.5 million eligible voters voted for Trump. The number of eligible voters doesn’t even include the more than 3.2 million prisoners and ex-prisoners who, depending on state laws, are denied the right to vote.

High numbers of nonvoters also raise the question of why voter turnout in the United States is much lower than it is in almost every other democratic country. Yes, some Americans stayed home on Election Day because they are alienated from or apathetic about politics. Others didn’t vote because they didn’t like either of the two major candidates. But America’s low voter turnout is due primarily to our complex voter registration laws that place enormous obstacles to sign up to vote. Only 63.1 percent of eligible voters are even registered. But once registered, almost all of them, 88 percent, went to the polls. 

Thirteen states currently allow Election Day registration. The six states with the highest voter turnout this year—Minnesota (74.2 percent), New Hampshire (72.6 percent), Colorado (71.3), Maine (69.9 percent), Iowa (68.6 percent), and Wisconsin (68.3 percent)—all have same-day registration laws. If people were automatically registered to vote, as they are in Oregon, voter turnout would increase. This year, 66.9 percent of Oregon’s eligible voters cast a ballot. Making Election Day a national holiday, like many other democracies already do, would bring even more Americans to the polls.

These Election Day voting statistics should pose a serious question for progressives and for the Democratic Party. Going forward, should they focus efforts on trying to persuade the people who voted for Trump, who are disproportionately white and middle-class, to switch to Democratic candidates? Or should they focus their efforts on trying to mobilize nonvoters, who are mostly Democratic-leaning, poor, minority, and young of all races? This need not be an either/or choice, but it is certainly a question about whether persuasion or mobilization is the most effective use of limited financial and people resources in future elections.

Post-election autopsies have identified many reasons for Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss. Some of these elements were within the Clinton campaign’s control and some weren’t. There is plenty of blame to go around, including media coverage that allowed Trump to set the agenda; the GOP’s voter suppression and intimidation campaign; FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented last-minute intervention; voters’ perceptions that Clinton was too closely tied to Wall Street, mishandled her government email account, or allowed Clinton Foundation donors to influence her decision-making; and Trump’s success at exploiting economic anxiety, racism, and sexism.

But the bottom line is that Clinton lost because the Democratic Party base, the people who elected Obama in 2008 and 2012, did not turn out; when they did, they did not vote for her by large-enough margins. Persuasion was an element of Trump’s success: He appears to have made some gains among the non-college-educated, white working class in Rust Belt states, partly by mobilizing previous nonvoters, but also by winning over some who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. It isn’t clear if Clinton could have retained these Obama voters’ support in the current political climate, especially if their attraction to Trump was based on xenophobia, racism, and sexism rather than his positions on trade and other economic issues. The Democrats should not abandon these voters. But to win them back they need to develop a policy agenda and message that can play to their hopes rather than their fears and rebuild the political machinery to reach them.

Voting is a habit, and so is nonvoting. Politicians and political parties typically focus their appeals on “likely” voters. Democrats have to decide whether they should invest resources in getting nonvoters and “infrequent” voters to change their habits and come to the polls. There’s a potential goldmine of Democratic-leaning voters who could change the outcome of almost all future elections. The University of Chicago’s Fowler and Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos found that “traditional ground campaigning,” such as door-knocking and personal contacts with people who usually do not vote, can increase turnout by 7 to 8 percentage points. Identifying those voters, especially in battleground states for presidential, congressional, and state legislative races, could yield a bonanza of votes for Democrats.

Throughout American history, whenever voter turnout has been high, it is because people have been mobilized to vote. Political parties and social movements have actively reached out, identified, and recruited people to come to the polls. For much of the 20th century, the labor movement was the major engine of Democratic Party turnout. Union members worked as volunteers in campaigns to get fellow union members and others to vote. They are more likely to vote, and more likely to vote Democratic, than other constituency groups. A preliminary study of union members by pollster Guy Molyneaux on behalf of the AFL-CIO found that 56 percent of union members voted for Clinton compared with 37 percent for Trump. That 19-point margin is smaller than in most past years, though pretty significant when one considers the margins Trump ran up among non-college voters, especially men.

But these figures would be even more impressive if union membership were higher. Over the past half-century, as union membership has shrunk from one-third to one-tenth of all American workers, its capacity to mobilize voters has declined. Even so, with more than 15 million members, unions remain the most potent liberal force in American politics. Although business groups typically outspend unions by more than a 10-to-1 margin when it comes to campaign contributions, organized labor has the largest war chest among key Democratic constituency groups. But Republicans seem to be more aware of unions’ political importance than many liberals and progressives. 

In 2001, Republican strategist and corporate lobbyist Grover Norquist penned an article in the right-wing American Spectator that outlined a strategy to create a permanent conservative Republican majority. His goal was, and is, to relegate the Democratic Party to minority status to head off progressive taxes and regulations on business that upset his corporate clients.

Norquist took aim at the labor movement with a goal to undermine its strength as a bulwark of the Democratic Party. He called on Republican governors and state legislators to adopt “right to work” laws and “paycheck protection” measures that would make it harder for unions to organize and represent workers. To break public-sector unions, he encouraged Republican-controlled states to back “privatization” schemes, such as private charter schools and outsourcing major government functions to for-profit companies. Republican governors continue to push Norquist’s agenda. Meanwhile, as president, Trump will appoint anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board to crush what is left of the labor movement. 

Environmentalists, feminists, civil-rights, and LBGTQ activists have a stake in a stronger labor movement. If liberalism and progressivism is to have a future, these groups need to join forces with organized labor to protect workers’ rights, environmental justice, women’s, and LBGTQ rights, civil liberties, and the other hard-won victories that are now in jeopardy. That type of coalition should set its sights on a multiyear, no-holds-barred effort to inspire and mobilize the low-income, young, and minority Americans who stayed home on November 8. A coordinated drive is the only way to ensure that Democrats can move to take back Congress, the White House, governors’ offices, and state legislatures. 

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