Event Summary: Voter Mobilization and Turnout

October 29, 2004

With the presidential race in a dead heat only days before Election Day, experts say that the outcome could hinge on the size of the turnout. A panel of experts speaking at the Brookings Institution today agreed that turnout would likely be high, juding by enlarged registration rolls, voter interest, and massive get-out-the-vote efforts.

Brookings Visiting Fellow Michael McDonald said that turnout could equal or even exceed the percentage of Americans who voted in 1992 and match rates achieved during “that golden age of voting in the 1950s.” The hotly contested election could bring out 122 million voters, or roughly 60 percent of eligible voters.

UCLA Assistant Professor Lynn Vavreck said that the potentially high turnout is the result of a “perfect storm” of political forces. She said that anger over the 2000 election, the war in Iraq, and the heavy spending by 527s have energized the electorate.

The conventional wisdom holds that higher turnout favors Democrats for two reasons. First, the percentage of registered voters in Democratic-leaning groups—African-Americans, Hispanics, low-income voters, and single people—is lower than among Republican constituencies. Second, Democrats have a better record of getting their voters to the polls on Election Day. Early indicators suggesting that voters will turn out in droves on Election Day “must be giving Karl Rove heartburn,” McDonald said.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeanne Cummings said that the two parties approached turnout differently. “The Republican strategy is to get every Republican out there to vote,” Cummings said. “The Democrats have a different strategy. Their plan is to broaden their registration base and get out the marginal voters who may vote Democratic.”

Princeton University professor Larry Bartels agreed and said that the Republican strategy is largely a result of an increasingly divided country. “People have caught on to this long-term increase in partisanship and polarization,” Bartels said. “Many think that perhaps we’ve gone as far as we can in trying to persuade people and the best thing to do is to try to turnout the people we know are likely to be in our camp.”

With turnout shaping up as perhaps the most crucial factor on November 2, Yale University professor Alan Gerber presented evidence comparing the effectiveness of different get-out-the-vote methods. Gerber, who recently co-authored Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout with Yale colleague Donald P. Green, said that personal contact yielded the best results. “The face-to-face canvassing efforts and door knocks are dramatically more effective than the most impersonal contact method.”

The event was the fourth event in a five-part series co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Princeton University. The fifth and final event, entitled, “Elections, Mandates, and Governance,” will be held at the Brookings Institution on November 12 at 10 a.m.

More information on the series can be found at: