Turnout Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman points out that, for all the talk about how important efforts to turn the base out in elections is, the results matter only at the margins:

How much difference can turnout really make? Consider the punishing arithmetic. Take a House race that this year would otherwise be 52-48 Democratic. What would turnout efforts have to achieve to overturn the putative victory?

Use white evangelical Protestants as an example. They comprised 23 percent of the national electorate in both 2000 and 2004, so let’s say they are the same proportion of our imaginary Congressional District. Say the 72-hour program was spectacularly — increasing their turnout by 20 percent while every other segment of the electorate held constant. In that case, evangelicals would constitute 26.4 percent of the electorate.

Assume for the sake of argument they continued to give the GOP the same 78 percent of their votes they gave to George Bush in 2004. Such heroic efforts would still result in a Democratic victory. And if white evangelical Protestants only offered 68 percent of their votes to Republicans, all that work would result in less than a 1-point shift in the vote. And that calculation makes the very unlikely assumption that one side enjoys great success while the other does nothing.

Now, of course, in a 50-50 race, turnout makes all the difference in the world. But, generally, both sides are pretty motivated in those contests.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. What I find humorous about this is that Mellman is continuing the Democratic practice of identifying people by their group identity and not as individuals. So he sees the GOP blindly trying to get more white protestants to the polls, not individuals who will support the republican candidate.

    To put it another way, taking the same 52-48 otherwise race, if the GOP can get 20% more of their supporters to the polls, the race flips to 52.6% GOP, 47.4% dem.

    This reminds me of 2004 where the democrats felt that the GOP support was maxed out in 2000. So if they could deliver another 8 or 9 million votes, they would win. They did and the GOP delivered another 11 to 12 million to the polls.

    The GOP GOTV effort does not guarantee this election by any stretch of the imagination, but it will be interesting to understand the ‘likely voter’ screen in the polls in context of the GOTV effort. We shall see what we shall see.

  2. Wayne says:

    You beat me to the punch again. Which is o.k, you tend to be more articulating then I anyway.

  3. Thanks wayne.

    I did a quick bit of calculation and assuming you can deliver the right voters, a republican facing a 52 to 48% deficit in the polls would need to deliver 8.4% increase in their GOTV effort.

    To put this in perspective, using the RCP averages as of today and only using the stated preferences (i.e. throwing out the undecided):

    Steele needs 11.86%
    Talent needs 0.43%
    Burns needs 9.1%
    Kean needs 11.12%
    Chaffee needs 16.8%
    Allen needs 2.7%
    McGavick, DeWine and Santorum all need better than 30%.
    According to RCP, Corker already leads.

    I have no knowledge on the GOP GOTV effort other than what I read, but I would be amazed if it wasn’t good enough to get the 0.43% in MO and 2.7% in VA, which would leave the senate at 51 republicans, 47 democrats and 2 independents (who will vote/caucus with the dems).

    If the democratic strategist 20% has any bearing (the GOP increased its vote by 22.7% in 2004 vs 2000), then the GOP loses two (Santorum and DeWine) and picks up two (Steele and Kean) for a net senate of 55 – 43- 2. Which would be highly ironic as it would have the number of ‘Democrats’ lower than the previous senate because of the nutroots.

    Maybe there is a reason why Rove is smiling.