What Will Virginia’s Turnout Be on November 3rd?


There is no exact formula for projecting the number of voters that will turn out on any given Election Day. The intensity of the contest, the issues being discussed, and the hot-or-cold personalities of the candidates can spike turnout up or down.

But history can provide some clues. Voting is like inertia in most years. Objects (or people) in motion tend to remain in motion; objects at rest tend to remain at rest. Regular voters almost always show up, while something big is needed to attract casual, occasional voters.

Take a look at the accompanying table that compares Virginia voter turnouts in presidential and gubernatorial years. On average, turnout drops 30 percent from one year to the next. The major exception was for Doug Wilder (D) in 1989. Everyone had a strong opinion on that nationalized election, and the turnout broke all gubernatorial records for the time.

Virginia Voter Turnout

Compiled by Isaac Wood, U.Va. Center for Politics.

In 2008, 3.75 million Virginians voted in the Obama-McCain election, by far the heaviest voter participation in the state ever. If there is the usual 30 percent drop, then 2009’s turnout for governor will be in the neighborhood of 2.6 million. However, that’s an enormous increase of 600,000 over the last election for governor in 2005, when turnout barely topped 2 million.

It may well be that we see a drop approximating the higher 38 percent decline recorded in 2005 from the previous year’s Bush-Kerry race for the White House, which also generated a higher-than-usual turnout. If so, the 2009 Virginia turnout will be about 2.3 million. Therefore, depending on which estimate is correct, somewhere between 1.1 million and 1.4 million people who voted for president in 2008 probably won’t be seen at the polls on November 3, 2009.

Who are those missing voters? It’s impossible to know for sure in advance, but it is quite likely they will be disproportionately minority voters and the young–two groups that voted heavily Democratic in 2008. That obviously helps Republican Bob McDonnell and hurts Democrat Creigh Deeds.

The inertia of voting in 2009 is an ally of the GOP’s McDonnell. Democrat Deeds has to do everything possible not just to increase turnout but to make the 2009 Virginia electorate look like 2008’s. Obviously, that is why everyone assumes President Obama will be campaigning in Virginia for Deeds in the closing days of the campaign.