Opinion - Politics

OpEd: Why Democrats may not need an exciting candidate to drive voter turnout in 2020

Joshua Spivak
Key Points
  • As the Democrats battle for the 2020 nomination, a recurrent theme has cropped up: Who can excite the base and drive turnout in November.
  • History shows the candidate may not be the deciding factor.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R) participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

As the Democrats battle for the 2020 nomination, a recurrent theme has cropped up: Who can excite the base and drive turnout in November.

President Donald Trump seems to be betting his race entirely on this base turnout strategy. Since voters are now seen as historically inelastic, this logic seems inescapable — driving up your own turnout is easier than convincing anyone to switch sides.

But choosing a candidate based on excitement may be a poor strategy for Democrats. The history of presidential elections suggests that candidates may have a limited role in pushing turnout.

Compare one of the most charismatic candidates in US history with one of the least. Republican Theodore Roosevelt was pure excitement, while his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, was the polar opposite. And yet, turnout was higher for Taft's 1908 election than Roosevelt in 1904, and Taft and Roosevelt had almost the exact same total vote in their respective elections.

The Democratic candidates in those elections may have made a difference – the exciting William Jennings Bryan could have helped drive up turnout in 1908 while the Democrats nondescript 1904 nominee, Alton B. Parker did not. But neither Democrat was successful.

It may not have been the politicians at all, but simply that 1908, after a serious recession, Americans may have felt more urgency about heading to the voting booth.

Looking forward one election, we see another drop in turnout. One of the most exciting races in US history happened in 1912 when four notable candidates faced off in November. Taft ran as a Republican, Roosevelt as a Progressive (Bull Moose), and the popular Woodrow Wilson as a Democrat, along with prominent Socialist Eugene Debs.

Trump's behavior in office and impeachment may ensure that voters from both parties will come out no matter who the Democrats select.

Even so, this election drew an even lower voter turnout percentage than either of the previous two races. What explains this result? Perhaps the fact that Wilson was seen as a shoe-in, which may have kept people home.

History shows turnout ebbs and flows and the reasons are not clear. Charisma, or at least our post-facto view, may have less impact than imagined. For example, Ronald Reagan, arguably the last president to win a real blowout, had unimpressive turnouts. The 1976 Jimmy Carter/Gerald Ford race had a higher turnout ratio than either of Reagan's victories. Bill Clinton's triumph in 1992 also was higher. Reagan received a bounty of votes, but it may have been swing voters from those famous Reagan Democrats.

Even when turnout rises, it frequently drops in the next election. The elections for Eisenhower, Clinton and Obama saw spikes, but in their reelections turnout dropped back. In their reelections, Eisenhower and Clinton saw increases in their vote, but it may have simply been party switchers. Most notably in 1996, a large chunk of Ross Perot's 1992 voters switched to the incumbent Democrat. Obama actually ended up losing three and a half million votes between 2008 and 2012.

What may drive up turnout is the perception that the vote will count because the race will be close. That certainly could explain 1976, the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 election, Bush-Kerry in 2004 and 1916 between Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes, all of which saw a turnout bump.

But in other cases, we've seen voter turnout drop despite a close battle. The 2000 Bush-Gore race saw lower turnout than in 1992 or 2004. Similarly, the close races in 1948, 1968 and 2016 saw either a drop in turnout or virtually the same level of participation.

A close race

Economic factors may play a large role. The last two recessions were in 1992 and 2008, and we saw a turnout increase. Yet the first election to take place in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, saw a significant downturn, albeit one that was reversed in 1936. Threats of war may be another driver. Turnout went up in 1916, 1952, 1940 and 2004 when wars were top of mind. However, the 1968 election at the height of the Vietnam War saw a slight drop in voter turnout.

It's too early to tell whether the economy or war will be a factor in 2020, but a close race should drive turnout. Because of the polarizing nature of the Trump presidency and the closeness of the 2016 election, the turnout may end up quite high. Trump's behavior in office and impeachment may ensure that voters from both parties will come out no matter who the Democrats select.

The continued success of Joe Biden in the polls may show that the average Democratic voter has accepted this view, even if the more excitable commentators haven't. In polls, Biden seems to be the candidate who actually takes slightly more swing votes from Trump – Trump's numbers go down more against Biden than other candidates. For the Democrats, the bumpy history of voter turnout in presidential races shows that the candidate's charisma may not make the difference.

Commentary by Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He blogs at The Recall Elections Blog. Follow him on Twitter @recallelections.

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