Can Fear and Hate Turn Out the Vote As Much As Enthusiasm?

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There's plenty of "energy" in this election, but a lot of it is negative.Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At this point in a presidential general-election cycle, we would normally be talking about the relative levels of “enthusiasm” for each major-party candidate as a potential contributor to turnout levels. Instead we are mostly talking about the antipathy of voters for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two most unpopular major-party presidential nominees since at least the 1960s and 1970s.

Does that mean we are likely to have a low-turnout election? Maybe not, says veteran political observer Charlie Cook:

With such a large pool of ambivalent or unenthusiastic voters, gauging turnout will be particularly problematic. Many are suggesting an unusually or historically low turnout, but my own theory is that we are more likely to have an average to high level of voter participation. The intensity of the hatred for one or the other is so high among so many that the option of refraining from voting at all seems abhorrent to many of these voters. Some can’t see themselves sleeping at night if Trump were to win and they hadn’t voted against him; others feel the same way about Clinton. Given that election officials do not separate the ballots of those voting against someone from those voting for someone, a vote is a vote, no matter the motive. 

Cook also notes that a strong interest in the election is evident, even if “enthusiasm” for the candidates is low:

The polling is clear that Americans are watching this election closely, and that while many are unenthusiastic about their choices, there is a strong sentiment that the outcome is important, that who wins matters. That points to pretty good turnout, even if voters don’t have a real spring in their step walking up to the polling place or mark their ballot with a flourish. 

I’ve always liked to say in response to people who obsess over “enthusiasm” that you do not get bonus votes for being psyched out of your skull as you snake-dance to the polls with your ideological or partisan buddies. The same is true of those who drag themselves to the polls because they are concerned Clinton or Trump will rob them of their priceless heritage of freedom, or bankrupt the country, or expose us to foreign or domestic threats. The fearful or hateful voter gets one vote, just like everybody else.

It’s true that other factors affect turnout, such as the apparent belief of the Trump campaign that it does not need a Get Out the Vote or even much of a voter targeting operation, as compared to the Clinton’s campaign’s commitment to robust investments in both data for voter targeting and traditional and social-media-driven GOTV. That may not affect overall levels of national turnout a whole lot, but at the margins and in battleground states, it could make a crucial difference.

But it’s unlikely the Trump campaign will be outgunned in the hate and fear department. That does seem to be an area where his campaign has a true surplus of assets.