July 24, 2014

Voter turnout always drops off for midterm elections, but why?

midtermTurnoutWith three-and-a-half months to the midterm elections, it’s still unclear the extent to which Republicans’ advantage in voter engagement will translate into more actual House and Senate seats. But we’ll go out on a limb on two predictions: A lot fewer people will vote this year than did in 2012, and Democrats are likely to suffer accordingly.

Voter turnout regularly drops in midterm elections, and has done so since the 1840s. In 2008, for instance, 57.1% of the voting-age population cast ballots — the highest level in four decades — as Barack Obama became the first African American elected president. But two years later only 36.9% voted in the midterm election that put the House back in Republican hands. For Obama’s re-election in 2012, turnout rebounded to 53.7%.

Who turns out to vote and why is of much more than academic interest. In an era of increasingly polarized politics, campaign strategists must decide how much effort to put into persuading independent-minded voters to come out and support their candidate without antagonizing their party’s core supporters, who are more likely to vote anyway. Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were largely due to his campaign’s success in expanding the electorate — inspiring new voters and increasing turnout among blacks.

Turnout calculations can vary somewhat depending on which population estimate is used as a base and which vote measure is compared against it. For our chart, we used Census estimates of the voting-age population each year since 1948 and vote totals as compiled by the Clerk of the House.

Some researchers, though, argue that focusing on the voting-age population, rather than the people actually eligible to vote, distorts the picture. For instance, Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist, estimates that in 2012 roughly 20.5 million U.S. residents aged 18 and up, or 8.5% of the voting-age population, were non-citizens and, hence, ineligible to vote. Another 3.2 million couldn’t vote because they were in prison or had been convicted of a felony.

By subtracting those people, and adding in the 4.7 million American citizens living overseas but still eligible to vote, McDonald estimates the “voting-eligible population,” or VEP, in 2012 was 222.3 million. Based on that adjusted base, turnout in recent elections was rather higher: 61.6% in 2008, 39.9% in 2010 and 58.2% in 2012.

turnout_VEPHistory break: As McDonald’s chart shows, in the early decades of the republic, midterm elections typically drew more voters than presidential contests. Back then, most states only gave voting rights to property owners, and Congress — not the presidency — tended to be the federal government’s main power center and focus of electoral campaigns. Those conditions changed in the 1820s during the Second Party System, when most states repealed property qualifications, interest in politics soared as politicians increasingly appealed to ordinary people, and the parties directed much of their energy on capturing the White House after the disputed 1824 election (which John Quincy Adams won even though Andrew Jackson received the most votes). By 1840, turnout among the white, male electorate topped 80%; the total number of votes cast that year was 60% higher than in 1836. (Blacks received the right to vote in 1870 with the Fifteenth Amendment, women in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment.)

Though political scientists long have noted the midterm dropoff, they don’t agree on precisely what it means. In an influential 1987 article, James E. Campbell theorized that “the surge of interest and information in presidential elections” typically works to the advantage of one party or the other; that party’s partisans become more likely to vote, while those of the disadvantaged party are more likely to stay home during presidential elections. Independents, “lacking a standing partisan commitment…should divide disproportionately in favor of the advantaged party.” Midterm elections lack that “wow” factor, according to Campbell, and turnout among both partisans and independents return to more normal levels and patterns.

A recent paper by Brown University researcher Brian Knight seeks to evaluate that surge-and-decline theory, as well as two competing explanations of why the president’s party nearly always loses seats at the midterms: a “presidential penalty,”  or general preference among midterm voters for expressing dissatisfaction with the president’s performance or ensuring that his party doesn’t control all the levers of government, and recurring shifts in voter ideology between presidential and midterm elections. Knight concluded that while all three factors contribute to what he calls the “midterm gap,” the presidential penalty has the most impact.

In any event, if 2014 follows the trend Democrats are almost certain to lose seats in the House and Senate this November, and many pollsters predict as much. As Knight notes, since 1842 the President’s party has lost seats in 40 of 43 midterms — the exceptions being 1934, 1998 and 2002. (Whether Republicans will pick up enough Senate seats to take control of that chamber is a much closer question.) And as Campbell concluded in his paper, “For the congressional candidates of the president’s party, the return to normalcy at the midterm represents a loss.”

Topics: 2014 Election, Congress, Elections and Campaigns, Voter Participation

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center.

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5 Comments

  1. Mark N3 months ago

    30 July 2014
    I have observed among my friends and family, that voting for the president to be considered of higher value, or, prestige, than voting for local officials. Somehow, they feel highly privileged to “elect” president. Obviously, it is the local officials, who affect day-to-day living circumstances.

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  2. Rob3 months ago

    Many states are making voting more difficult and we see an ebb and flow over the years of barriers to voting, subtle and not so subtle. When I was a child it was literacy tests (not imposed on whites by way of the “grandfather” rule) and poll taxes. Now college students (for example) are being disenfranchised. They tend to be liberal and not to pay taxes. But most of them only got the vote during the Viet Nam era. One can certainly argue whether the casual voter should vote at all, but most people pay lip service to the idea that voting is essential to democracy and to a feeling that decisions made by the government are legitimate. Another factor may be cynicism. Unions have also greatly declined, and they were once the great motors for “get out the vote” efforts. Finally (for me), one has to connect several dots to see that not just 2 years but 20-30 years may be affected – namely by confirmation of Supreme Court justice(s) who may be nominated during the next period. The makeup of the Senate will affect the nomination and possibly even the confirmation. We will live with the results for a long time.

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  3. Vinnie3 months ago

    Why do fewer people vote in the midterms? Well, let’s see…

    1) In a presidential election, you are certain to be voting for at least two federal candidates — your US Rep and the President. You may also be voting for a Senator. In a midterm election, you may only be voting for your US Rep. Fewer people vote when they have less to vote for.

    2) Quite a few US Rep districts in the country are so ridiculously gerrymandered that the results of that election are presumable from the second the primaries end. Fewer people vote when they don’t think it makes a difference.

    3) Presidential campaigns feature multiple televised debates, long running ad campaigns, and extensive news coverage. Unless your district is very evenly matched or you have a particularly eccentric candidate in your race, US Rep races will get minimal television coverage and you’d have to actively seek out information somewhere in the middle of the newspaper. Fewer people vote when they have to find out what they’re voting on.

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  4. Unaffiliated voter3 months ago

    Why is turnout low? [1] if you aren’t a genuine party supporter, it’s difficult to declare your party affiliation (as required in many states), [2] mid-term elections are usually poorly publicized (if you’re cynical you’d see that as a way to keep the unaffiliated or contrarian voter away), so the average citizen is unaware it is taking place.

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  5. Miriam3 months ago

    I hope all this research predicting that the Republicans will take the Senate and keep the House is not a self fulfilling prophecy. We liberals have to learn to be as intolerant of the far right as they are of us. And we have to take action as they do. If people really thought about what’s at stake Democrats would do their damndest to come out and vote. Otherwise all the progressive gains of the last several decades will be totally undone. They have to think about what’s at stake and not just stubbornly fold their arms and say one party is the same as the other, so why should they exercise their franchise. It’s not for nothing that the country is so divided but one side wants to make it a one party, uh, republic and let the middle and lower classes be damned.

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