early and often

Are Democrats the Party of Low-Turnout Elections Now?

The question of who votes when is now a lot less clear than it used to be. Photo: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

One interpretation of the pattern of Democratic overperformance in the elections since 2020 that we saw confirmed again on Tuesday is that anxieties over 2024 polls showing Joe Biden in trouble are overblown. The dysfunctional GOP, with its scofflaw presidential nominee and its profoundly unpopular views on the red-hot abortion issue, is now regularly blowing winnable elections, and it will probably happen again next year, right?

A contrary take on relatively strong Democratic outcomes in 2021, 2022, and now 2023 suggests that the party is simply stronger than Republicans in non-presidential elections with their smaller electorates, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn argues:

Democrats appear to have an advantage among the most highly engaged voters, who make up the preponderance of the electorate in a special election, a midterm or an off-year general election.

This is partly because Democrats have made steady gains among college-educated, older and white voters, who tend to vote more regularly than young, nonwhite and working-class voters. It’s also partly because Democrats enjoy a turnout advantage beyond demographics, as the party’s activist base has been highly motivated to defend abortion rights, democracy and defeat Mr. Trump, dating all the way to the aftermath of his victory in 2016.

Put aside for a moment the doubt you may have about Cohn’s hypothesis here. If he’s right, how big a change that would be! Democrats have for years now championed measures to make voting easier based on the assumption that a larger electorate probably helps their party as well as small-d democracy. And Republicans have for years, and particularly during the Trump years, fought tooth and nail against “convenience voting,” automatic voter registration, and other electorate-expanding measures on the apparent ground that any “real American” should be willing to go to the trouble to register and vote the old-fashioned way — and that higher turnout might actually indicate fraud. Let’s not forget that Trump’s principal argument for claiming the 2020 election was “rigged” was his contention that any voting other than in person on Election Day was inherently fishy.

It’s also true that in recent memory, the groups most likely to vote in non-presidential elections since time immemorial were the older, whiter voters who have been trending Republican for years. I know this because I wrote a whole book nine years ago explaining why the Obama landslide of 2008 turned so quickly into midterm disasters for his party in 2010 and again (after he won a second presidential election) in 2014.

So is Cohn telling us that proposition should now be turned on its head, with Democrats cherishing the clubby voting locations of non-presidential elections while Republicans hope everybody votes, complete with abundant early voting?

It’s possible, I suppose, but it’s important to stipulate there are different types of voters who are likely to stay home between presidential elections but show up like clockwork every four years. Some are younger people not yet rooted in a particular community and with no personal history of voting. They are part of a group that has been heavily Democratic in the recent past. Others are members of non-white groups (particularly Latinos) with low non-presidential voting habits who are trending Republican at one rate or another. Still others are the famously GOP-trending white working-class voters who both are alienated from traditional politics and don’t have the higher educational and income levels associated with very regular voting.

What a lot of these groups of voters have in common at the moment is disaffection with Joe Biden for a mixed bag of reasons that may or may not be consistent with active consideration of a Republican presidential vote. Their negative attitude toward the political status quo doesn’t, however, mean they can be safely ignored by either political party; they are almost certainly going to vote at higher levels in 2024 than they did in 2022 or 2023. Democrats should, however, stop treating them as “base” voters who simply have to be dragged to the polls but more as voters who need to be persuaded and mobilized at the same time. Looking at the overall composition of the electorate, there’s no reason Democrats should suddenly become the party of low-turnout elections. But the dynamics that have given them a plurality of the national popular vote in seven of the eight most recent presidential elections cannot be taken for granted.

Are Democrats the Party of Low-Turnout Elections Now?