Higher Voter Turnout Alone is Unlikely to Change the Outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election


“Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
— Ted Cruz in his presidential campaign announcement speech at Liberty University on March 23, 2015.

“One of the real advantages, I think, of me winning the Democratic primary, is that we get a lot of young people, a lot of working people involved in the political process, getting them out to vote in a way that establishment politicians can’t.”
— Bernie Sanders on NBC’s Meet the Press, Aug. 13, 2015.

As politicians, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders could hardly be more different. The two senators occupy opposing ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum: Sanders is generally regarded as the Senate’s most liberal member and Cruz as its most conservative member. A general election contest between them would set a new standard for ideological polarization.

Despite their differences, however, Cruz and Sanders have one thing in common — their electoral strategies rely heavily on dramatically expanding the American electorate. As the quotations at the top of this article indicate, each believes that he can win the 2016 election by turning out millions of nonvoters who will respond to his message. Sanders’ target audience consists of young people and low-to-moderate income Americans who share his view that the economy and political system are rigged to favor the very wealthy; Cruz’s target audience consists of religious conservatives who share his view that the country needs to restore traditional marriage and sharply limit access to abortion.

And Sanders and Cruz aren’t the only presidential candidates banking on increased voter turnout to win in November. Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination, has argued that his ability to turn out millions of new working-class voters worried about free trade, terrorism, and illegal immigration would allow him to defeat either Hillary Clinton or Sanders.

Testing claims about the effects of higher turnout

How realistic are the claims made by these presidential candidates that higher voter turnout could increase their chances of winning the 2016 presidential election? To answer this question, I analyzed data from the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) on the characteristics and political attitudes of voters and nonvoters in the 2012 presidential election. The question here is which candidates, if any, would benefit from expanding the size of the electorate.

Of course, no voter mobilization campaign can expect to turn out all or even most of the nation’s nonvoters. While some nonvoters might require only a small push to get to the polls, many have little or no interest in politics and are unlikely to respond to any registration or get-out-the-vote campaign, no matter how intensive. For this reason I divided nonvoters into two types — marginal nonvoters and hardcore nonvoters.

I classified nonvoters as marginal or hardcore based on three factors: whether they were registered to vote, their level of interest in the presidential campaign, and whether they cared about the winner of presidential election. Based on their responses to these three questions, I classified 43% of nonvoters as marginal and 57% as hardcore. In fact, this is probably a very optimistic classification — if more than two-fifths of nonvoters could be persuaded to turn out in a presidential election, the overall turnout rate would increase from about 60% of eligible voters to more than 75% of eligible voters, which would be far higher than the actual turnout in any presidential election in the past century.

Candidates who claim that they can win a presidential election by increasing turnout typically assume that new voters will consist overwhelmingly of their own supporters. But this assumption is clearly unrealistic. In a presidential election, both parties can be expected to work hard to mobilize their supporters. Therefore, the characteristics and political orientations of new voters are likely to reflect the characteristics and political orientations of the pool of marginal nonvoters in the electorate. The data in Table 1 show that nonvoters in general and marginal nonvoters in particular are quite diverse in their social characteristics and political views. It is therefore highly unlikely that those persuaded to turn out would overwhelmingly favor either the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate.

Table 1: Social characteristics and political attitudes of voters and marginal nonvoters in 2012

Note: The percentages in some categories may not add up to 100 due to rounding. In the case of 2012 voting intent, some respondents did not support either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

While marginal nonvoters are a rather diverse group, the data in Table 1 show that they differed from voters in a number of important respects. Compared with voters, marginal nonvoters were considerably less white, younger, less educated, poorer, less religious, more independent, and more likely to favor an activist role for government in dealing with societal problems. Most importantly, for our purposes, marginal nonvoters were considerably more likely than voters to favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the pre-election wave of the 2012 ANES survey.

The data in Table 1 provide no evidence to support claims by Cruz and Trump that higher voter turnout in 2016 would likely benefit the GOP. In 2012, higher turnout would almost certainly have benefited Obama and other Democrats. But the question remains, how much? To answer this question, we need to compare the social characteristics and political attitudes of the actual electorate in 2012 with the characteristics and attitudes of the expanded electorate including the marginal nonvoters. That evidence is displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Social characteristics and political attitudes of actual and expanded electorate in 2012

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

The evidence in Table 2 shows that, while the characteristics and attitudes of marginal nonvoters clearly differed in some respects from those of actual voters, adding them to the electorate would have had very little effect on the overall makeup and political outlook of the 2012 electorate. The expanded electorate would have been slightly less white, slightly younger, slightly less educated, slightly poorer, and slightly less religious than the actual electorate. Most importantly from our perspective, the expanded electorate would have been almost identical to the actual electorate in terms of party identification and candidate preference — slightly more independent and favoring Obama over Romney by a seven-point margin compared with a six-point margin in the actual electorate (as observed by the ANES; Obama won the 2012 election by four points nationally).


Evidence from the 2012 American National Election Study does not support claims by either Republican or Democratic candidates that increasing turnout in the 2016 presidential election would give a big advantage to one side or the other. This evidence shows that marginal nonvoters, the type most likely to be turned out in a high-turnout election like that for president, were considerably younger, less white, poorer, and less religious than voters. They were also more supportive of activist government and, at least in 2012, more likely to favor the Democratic candidate for president prior to the election. Despite these differences, however, adding marginal nonvoters would have had only very small effects on the overall makeup and political outlook of the electorate.

Very large differences in voter turnout clearly can affect the characteristics and political attitudes of the electorate. In recent years, for example, voters in low-turnout midterm elections have been significantly older, whiter, and more Republican than voters in much higher turnout presidential elections. But that is because turnout in presidential elections is much greater than turnout in midterm elections — between 2012 and 2014 turnout fell from 58% of eligible voters to 36% of eligible voters. In contrast, variability in turnout among recent presidential elections has been fairly modest: Since 1992, turnout has ranged from 52% of eligible voters to 62% of eligible voters. And evidence from the 2012 ANES indicates that even a substantial increase in turnout in 2016 would probably have only a small impact on the outcome of the election. Claims by Republican or Democratic presidential candidates that they can dramatically transform the American electorate by increasing voter turnout should be viewed with considerable skepticism.