If Everyone Had Voted, Would Bubba and Dubya Have Won?

By Sides, John; Schickler, Eric et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

If Everyone Had Voted, Would Bubba and Dubya Have Won?


Sides, John, Schickler, Eric, Citrin, Jack, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Raymond Wolfinger's seminal research has established with elegance and precision the demographic and institutional bases of voter turnout in the United States. With these results in hand, Wolfinger turned to the significant "so what?" question, probing the implications of higher levels of participation for electoral outcomes and subsequent policy making. Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) and Highton and Wolfinger (2001) provocatively conclude that outcomes in recent American presidential elections would not have changed if everyone had voted and that, as a whole, the preferences of nonvoters are well represented by the opinions of voters (Highton and Wolfinger 2001, 179, 192).

This conclusion challenges much conventional wisdom. Because the poor and ethnic minorities are less likely to vote and because the Democrats have been the favored party among these groups, there is a pervasive belief that higher levels of turnout would favor the Democrats. Democratic politicians, prodded by their newly mobilized constituents, would then adopt bold policies that would reduce economic inequality (Lijphart 1997). For leftist dreamers, compulsory voting would mean a permanent Democratic majority that ultimately could bring social and economic democracy to America. But leaving aside such a utopian scenario, at a minimum there is evidence that the preferences of representatives better correspond to those of voters than nonvoters (Griffin and Newman 2005) and that states with greater lower-class turnout have more generous welfare policies (Hill, Leighley, and Hinton-Anderson 1995), suggesting that less than full turnout does have consequences for the quality of representation and the content of public policy in the United States.

Studying the implications of higher turnout entails a "what if" analysis that necessarily involves assumptions about how nonvoters would behave. Wolfinger and Rosenstone's skeptical take on the implications of higher turnout rests on survey research regarding the gap between the opinions of nonvoters and voters. Highton and Wolfinger replicate the analysis and extend it to respond to the argument that with universal turnout, the content of electoral campaigns would change to engage the hitherto neglected priorities of nonvoters. They show that despite the class differences between voters and nonvoters, the "grievances and aspirations" of the two groups are very similar and that the poorer, more heavily minority nonvoting group is, if anything, less class conscious (Highton and Wolfinger 2001, 187-88). (1) This raises doubts about whether low-income nonvoters would always be motivated by economic concerns and therefore consistently cast a pocketbook vote for the Democrats.

Relying on aggregate data rather than public opinion polling, DeNardo (1980) echoes these arguments. He confirms that the electoral advantage of higher turnout for Democrats in congressional races is neither large nor universal. This advantage depends not just on the strength of the party-class linkage but also on the election-specific factors that cause peripheral voters to defect. On the assumption that nonvoters are less likely to be strong partisans, higher turnout would hurt Democratic candidates whenever short-run forces favor the Republicans because defection rates would be higher among their newly mobilized partisans (DeNardo 1980; Martinez and Gill 2005).

The main conclusion of research on the relationship between turnout and electoral outcomes in congressional (DeNardo 1980; Wattenberg and Brians 2002; Wuffle and Collet 1997), Senate (Citrin, Schickler, and Sides 2003; Nagel and McNulty 1996), and presidential elections (Brunell and DiNardo 2004; DeNardo 1980; Highton and Wolfinger 2001; Martinez and Gill 2005; Nagel and McNulty 2000) is that the impact of higher turnout is both variable and usually small. In most cases, Democrats gain from higher turnout, and even a small shift in the partisan distribution of the vote can change the result in close elections. …

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