Voter Turnout: The numbers prove that 2004 may signal more voter interest

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

November 27, 2004

This year, 2004, was a good year for participation in American politics.

Approximately 120.3 million people cast a ballot for president, which, in absolute numbers, are the most to have participated in any American election.

The turnout rate of 59.0% among those eligible to vote was also higher by 4.8 percentage points than the 2000 election.

Although the turnout rate was slightly below the 60.3% of eligible voters who voted in the 1992 election, it is still solidly above the post-1972 (the election in which 18- to 21-year-olds could first vote) average of 55.8%.

Participation was not uniform across the United States. Behind the national numbers are interesting tidbits of state data that reveal the deficiencies of the Electoral College and show where Bush received much of his popular vote victory.

Participation in the battleground states (including Wisconsin) soared. The turnout rate for the 16 battleground states was 65.3%; not only higher than the national turnout rate by 6.3 percentage points, but also 7.7 percentage points higher than 2000 in those same states.

What is truly remarkable about participation in the battleground states is that they are generally the same battleground as 2000. Voters in these states had previously been inundated with commercials and mobilization efforts by the campaigns in 2000.

Yet in this election, voters were even more motivated to vote. The large-scale mobilization efforts by the campaigns and the perceptions among voters that this was an important and close election fueled the rise in participation among voters in the battleground states.

The narrowing of the election by the Electoral College explains why so many people in these states did not feel that their vote mattered.

Doing away with this arcane and unwieldy structure would do much to increase participation in presidential elections.

That said, there are interesting patterns of turnout among the so-called red and blue states that help explain President Bush’s popular vote victory.

Turnout in the red states was 5.7 percentage points higher than 2000, while in the blue states, it was only 1.3 percentage points higher.

If turnout in the red states had increased by the same amount as the blue states, Bush would have received 1.9 million fewer votes.

Kerry also would have received fewer votes, since not everyone in these states voted for Bush, so Bush’s 3.3 million-vote victory cannot be entirely explained by this observation.

Still, the differential turnout rates among the red and blue states account for about a third of Bush’s margin of victory.

Moral issues, the new buzzword of the post-2004 election analysis, played a role in the increased red state turnout.

The eight red states with a gay marriage amendment to the state constitution on the ballot experienced a 6.5 point increase in their turnout rate over 2000. The issue gave people in states without a hotly contested presidential election a reason to vote.

However, the issue does not appear to have been decisive in swinging the election in the three battleground states where it appeared on the ballot. People there already were motivated to vote for president, and there was little difference in turnout among the battleground states with and without the issue on the ballot.

It remains to be seen if the increase in participation in the 2004 election is part of a new trend of increased participation or merely an aberration.

Following the high participation in the 1992 election, the turnout rate plunged by 8.5 percentage points in the 1996 election.

By July 1996, it was largely believed that then President Clinton would coast to victory. The perception that the election is important and close among voters is a primary determinant of overall participation, and there is no guarantee circumstances will repeat in 2008.

However, the 2004 election may be a watershed. The parties have figured out that the best way to get supporters to the polls, or to vote early, is through old-political-machine-era face-to-face contact between campaign workers and prospective voters.

The apparent success of these retro-mobilization efforts to increase turnout means we will likely see more of them in the coming years.

The Electoral College will continue to limit the focus of these operations, but it is possible that the campaigns and, more importantly, state and local parties, will emulate the door-to-door activities elsewhere in an effort to build their parties and expand their battlefield.

In the long run, we can hope that 2004 signals a revitalization of citizen participation in American democracy.