The Election of the Century

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

September 24, 2008

The impending presidential election may be the election of a century. Record primary voting, floods of new registrations, more small campaign donors and highly rated political conventions show that people are intensely interested.

These indicators augur a high turnout. Undoubtedly, more people will vote than the 60 percent who turned out four years ago, which was the highest rate since 1968. The question is, how many more? If participation tops the 1960 level of 64 percent, then we must go all the way back to 1908 — literally a century of American politics — to find the next highest rate: 66 percent.

Lessons from the 1960 and 1908 elections explain why 2008 may see a historical election. Many people recall the 1960 election that pitted two familiar names, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy won one of the closest presidential elections in American history. As in sports, people are interested when two contestants are evenly matched. Just like those in 1960, pre-election polls today show a tight race between Barack Obama and John McCain. People perceive that their vote will help determine big issues of peace and prosperity. Further, an African-American or a woman will be elected, for the first time, to one of the country’s highest offices. Contrast this to 1996: People tuned out when pre-election polls showed President Bill Clinton cruising to reelection over Bob Dole.

The 1908 election was not particularly close and did not involve big issues. Republican William Howard Taft won by a landslide over third-time Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose “free silver” platform had lost its luster. What is notable is that the 1908 election occurred in the twilight of the political machines that dominated American politics throughout the latter half of the 19th century. These machines were built from the bottom up. Local ward bosses, who knew their neighbors intimately, dispensed jobs and favors for votes. (Ward bosses conjure images of big city politics, but rural political machines existed, too.) Political machines even paid supporters’ taxes in states that disenfranchised tax delinquents.

During the machine era, turnout rates routinely exceeded 80 percent. Paying people to vote, however, discomfited many. Progressive Era reforms near the turn of the 20th century rooted out the obvious corruption by creating a civil service to replace patronage jobs and adopting the secret ballot so that political machines could not monitor voting. The 1908 election was among the last where machines could still turn out voters.

There is mounting evidence that political machines had something right: Face-to-face contact is among the most effective means to activate voters. Today’s high-tech campaigns recreate the mobilization capacity of political machines. In place of ward bosses are local volunteers, and in place of bosses’ neighborly knowledge are sophisticated microtargeted voter profiles that reveal which voters are persuadable and which are loyal party supporters. The glue is the Internet, which provides an information infrastructure for campaigns to recruit and communicate with their volunteers.

It is tempting to give Democrats a mobilization edge. Obama’s efforts are highly visible, whereas McCain must rely on the tightlipped Republican National Committee. Obama does not employ the Democratic National Committee for this expensive campaign operation because he opted out of public financing. Indeed, recent presidential candidates — McCain included — usually raise money for voter mobilization through their national parties.

Before Obama is given an edge, we must caution that Republicans are better able to register themselves than are lower-income Democrats. Massive Democratic registration drives create a false impression that they are out-hustling Republicans. In 2004, Democratic-aligned organizations’ highly publicized efforts exceeded their voter turnout victory targets. These groups underestimated President Bush’s 72-hour voter mobilization efforts the weekend before the election, which effectively matched them voter for voter.

Still, Obama’s organization should not be discounted. Just four years ago, Democrats were still playing catch-up to Republicans. Now they are just as sophisticated and have recruited a large cadre of volunteers, including typically apathetic youth.

American campaigns have undergone a paradigm shift. They no longer consist primarily of mass appeals through television advertising; grass-roots organizing is now a critical component. If elections stay close and interesting, we will likely observe higher turnouts. No longer will we wonder why turnout is declining; rather, we will wonder why it is climbing. A revitalized ground game will likely emerge as one explanation in the decade to come.