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2008 Voter Turnout Same as 2004

It turns out that, despite a huge rise in voter registrations, actual turnout Tuesday was essentially the same as in 2004.

61 Percent of Eligibles Voted

A new report from American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate concludes that voter turnout in Tuesday’s election was the same in percentage terms as it was four years ago — or at most has risen by less than 1 percent.

The report released Thursday estimates that between 126.5 and 128.5 million Americans cast ballots in the presidential election earlier this week. Those figures represent 60.7 percent or, at most, 61.7 percent of those eligible to vote in the country.

Democrat Showed Up, Republicans Stayed Home

“A downturn in the number and percentage of Republican voters going to the polls seemed to be the primary explanation for the lower than predicted turnout,” the report said. Compared to 2004, Republican turnout declined by 1.3 percentage points to 28.7 percent, while Democratic turnout increased by 2.6 points from 28.7 percent in 2004 to 31.3 percent in 2008.

“Many people were fooled (including this student of politics although less so than many others) by this year’s increase in registration (more than 10 million added to the rolls), citizens’ willingness to stand for hours even in inclement weather to vote early, the likely rise in youth and African American voting, and the extensive grassroots organizing network of the Obama campaign into believing that turnout would be substantially higher than in 2004,” Curtis Gans, the center’s director, said in the report. “But we failed to realize that the registration increase was driven by Democratic and independent registration and that the long lines at the polls were mostly populated by Democrats.”

Electoral College Pitfalls

Some experts also note that national turnout trends may mask higher turnout in swing states with more intensive attempts by both campaigns to get their supporters to the polls. Several large states, including California and New York, had no statewide races and virtually no advertising or get-out-the-vote efforts by either presidential campaign.

We’ll get more data in the coming weeks and months and be able to assess this more accurately.   Democrats, especially young and African-American Democrats in swing states, were extremely energized in this election but Republicans, whether because of lack of enthusiasm for John McCain or because the polls made the outcome seem inevitable, were not.

Further, the Electoral College system, which renders the presidential vote in most states essentially irrelevant, makes it hard to justify bothering.  If you’re a Republican in California or D.C. or a Democrat in Texas or Alabama, your vote simply doesn’t count.  So, unless you’re spurred by civic pride or down ballot elections, it’s hard to get motivated.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Further, the Electoral College system, which renders the presidential vote in most states essentially irrelevant

    The argument, or one of the arguments, for the EC is that, without it, with simply a popular vote, candidates would shun the smaller states for the larger where the bulk of the votes are. How do you feel about abandoning the EC for the popular vote, James?

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  2. The argument, or one of the arguments, for the EC is that, without it, with simply a popular vote, candidates would shun the smaller states for the larger where the bulk of the votes are

    I think that this is incorrect on two fronts. First, it makes the inherent assumption that the candidates somehow pay more attention to smaller states under the EC. They don’t. They pay attention to competitive states, often ignoring, or mostly ignoring voters in both large and small states. Heck, do you think that voters in TX, NY and CA were given as much attention as, say, voters in FL, PA or NH this year (or even NM or CO)?

    Second, if every vote counts equally, the candidates will have a motivation to run a truly national campaign, including small states.

    Over the years I have gone from being ambivalent about getting rid of the EC to being a proponent, not that I expect it to happen any time soon, if ever.

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  3. sam says:

    And, BTW, since this seems as good a place as any, folks who frequent this blog might be interested in this site, Watching America, that presents news stories about us and our politics, culture, etc, from all over the world. It is interesting to see how others see us. Highly recommended.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    How do you feel about abandoning the EC for the popular vote, James?

    I’ve taken the same path as Steven. I’m less of a Federalist than I once was generally and think the EC is a particularly outmoded vestige. For one thing, most of us move around with enough frequency that we’re Americans first and Virginians, or whatever, second if at all.

    Mostly, though, it’s just silly. Alabama, where my parents have lived for 28 years and I still consider “where I’m from” if not “home,” goes so overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate that there’s simply no reason to vote. The outcome’s a given and, since it’s winner-take-all, it’s a meaningless exercise. If you’re a Republican, as I am, your vote is unnecessary. If you’re a Democrat, your vote is voided.

    The presidency is the one office even casually involved citizens care about. (Most don’t know their Representative and, even if they did, the vast majority are in such safe seats that it doesn’t matter.) But unless you live in a “swing state” — which Virginia was, at least this cycle — you don’t get to participate meaningfully in his selection.

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s certainly the case with the precinct in which I served. Despite all the hoopla the actual number of voters was virtually identical to the number four years ago.

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  6. Rick Almeida says:

    The only real problem I have with abandoning the EC is that I fear that a truly national popular election would necessitate so many recounts and lawsuits as to preclude effective transition.

    The EC indeed has many flaws, but I think one system-preserving benefit is that it dramatically reduces the number of battlegrounds.

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  7. just me says:

    The only real problem I have with abandoning the EC is that I fear that a truly national popular election would necessitate so many recounts and lawsuits as to preclude effective transition.

    I think this is indeed a real issue.

    And I am not real convinced candidates would much bother with a national compaign. I don’t think they would focus on the large states, but probably on the urban areas-so outside of a few major cities in the flyover country, I figure the candidates would spend most of their time on the two coasts.

    I don’t like the way the EC works either. Personally I like the way Maine works out its EC votes, where each congressional district votes on its elector and the state wide winner gets the extra vote. I actually think this would make a lot of states where a vote seems meaningless more meaningful-even a state like California or New York where the GOP doesn’t have a chance would become more competitive. Also, this method would make the issue of recount perhaps a little less problematic.

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  8. [...] cynical) but dudes, I wasn’t too far off. Mine was the lowest prediction, too. According to the latest data, the voter turnout is pretty much exactly what it was in 2004 – the difference was in WHO showed [...]

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