Who Votes?

The key question for the 2006 midterms


The world is run by those who show up, and the most important factor in any election is the identity of the voters. Who bothers to show up at the polls?

This question is especially crucial in a midterm election such as 2006. The voter turnout will be much smaller than in the 2004 presidential election. It is always true that a substantial number of people who had cast a ballot for President in the prior election skip the off-year contests. But how many fewer voters will there be in 2006? And who are the ones who turn up and the ones who drop out?

To answer these queries, we have to go to the historical videotape. First, let’s take the long view–the really, really long view. Take a look at the following figure, taken from Karen O’Connor and Larry J. Sabato, American Government: Continuity and Change (Longman, 2006 edition):

This graph shows the proportion of eligible Americans who actually voted in all the presidential and midterm elections from the late 1780s to the present. “Eligible” Americans means the “voting age population”–all those who, technically at least, were qualified to have registered to vote and to have shown up at the polling places. The early years of the American Republic were marked by tiny voter turnouts, and not all states held popular elections for president and other offices. There were all kinds of voting restrictions (property-holding, religious, racial, gender), as well as a general assumption that voting was a privilege to be enjoyed only by the “best” people. No “mob rule” for the United States! Such an elitist approach did not last long. By 1836 the followers of President Andrew Jackson, then completing his second term in the White House, had established mass participation through political parties as the key to our democratic system. Yes, the “mass” was still limited to white males. Fortunately, our society has made great progress since then in broadening the electorate–but we need to keep our eye on another ball at the moment.

Since 1836 the two lines of this graph have never crossed. In every case, presidential elections have drawn far more voters than the midterm congressional elections. Whether this is good or bad, it is a well established fact, and almost certainly, the voter turnout in November 2006 will once again be well below the presidential turnout of November 2004.

So how much lower will it be? Let’s put away the telescope and pull out the microscope, and examine only elections from 1960 onwards. The table below gives us the rounded proportion of eligible Americans who voted in every national election from 1960 to 2004:

Year Percentage of VAP that Voted Percentage of VAP that Voted
President Midterm
1960-Presidential 63%
1962-Congressional 47%
1964-Presidential 62%
1966-Congressional 48%
1968-Presidential 61%
1970-Congressional 47%
1972-Presidential 56%
1974-Congressional 38%
1976-Presidential 54%
1978-Congressional 37%
1980-Presidential 53%
1982-Congressional 40%
1984-Presidential 53%
1986-Congressional 36%
1988-Presidential 50%
1990-Congressional 36%
1992-Presidential 55%
1994-Congressional 39%
1996-Presidential 49%
1998-Congressional 36%
2000-Presidential 51%
2002-Congressional 39%
2004-Presidential 61%
2006-Congressional ?

These numbers tell us so much, not least how interest varies from election to election, depending on the issues, the candidates, and the times. Most notable is the 2004 turnout of 61 percent, a level not seen since 1968. The intensity of the Bush-Kerry election in an age of polarization got more Americans involved in the political process.

For our purposes here, though, the number that matters is the relationship between the presidential turnout and the midterm congressional turnout. On average, the turnout declines 15 percentage points from a presidential election to the succeeding congressional midterm election. This relationship is remarkably stable. For the years shown in the graph, the greatest decline was 18 percent (from 1972 to 1974) and the smallest decline was 12 percent (from 2000 to 2002). Given the strong and consistent historical pattern, turnout in the 2006 midterm elections should be in the range of 46 percent of the voting age population. But wait…this would mark a massive turnaround from the average 37 percent turnout in the last eight midterm congressional elections. Turnout fell dramatically after 1971, in part because of the constitutional amendment enfranchising 18 to 20 year olds. The youngest age group simply did not vote at a high rate, and this lowered turnouts for all national elections.

So which will it be in November 2006? Will the turnout be around 37 percent, the “normal” modern midterm voter participation rate? Or will Americans continue the upward spike of the 2004 presidential election, and show up in a proportion close to 46 percent–the expected turnout from the longstanding relationship between presidential and midterm elections? Americans of good-will hope for the larger turnout, of course.

Absolute turnout is important, but in determining which party controls Congress and captures the Governorships, the more vital consideration is who votes. And here we have another puzzle.

In most recent elections, presidential and midterm, the voters have been divided fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans, based on the national exit polls and other reliable pre- and post-election surveys. In the most recent presidential election, for example, the electorate in November 2004 consisted of 37 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans, and 26 percent Independents. Reasonably similar, close divisions were recorded in 1996, 1998 and 2000.

But there is one great exception in the last five national elections: the midterm election of 2002. In the wake of September 11, President Bush was riding high in the polls, and he was able to use the national security issue to the Republicans’ advantage. GOP voters were energized, Democrats were demoralized, and as a result, the 2002 national electorate had a strongly Republican tilt: 40 percent were Republicans, only 31 percent Democrats, and 23 percent Independents. Not surprisingly, Republicans fared unusually well in 2002, recapturing the Senate and adding six U.S. House seats.

So what will the composition of the November 2006 electorate be? If the election were held today, Democrats might well have the turnout edge. President Bush is struggling, and a series of issues from Iraq to high gasoline prices to the failed Hurricane Katrina response have sent GOP stock tumbling. Can the Republicans recover in the six months before the election? After having been outdone in the ground war in 2000–a fact that nearly cost Bush the Presidency–the GOP significantly outclassed the Democrats in 2002 and, to a lesser extent, 2004. Will it be a three-peat? Or a throwback to 2000, when the Democrats won the popular vote for President and picked up four Senate and two House seats? To the turnout victor belong the spoils of ’06.