What people miss in the debate over turnout 📊 November 22, 2020

It helps to specify the question; and the role of black voters

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Dear reader,

There are a lot of things to worry and write about, but one thing we can apparently always rely on is people chiming in on the debate over whether Democrats fare better when they’re mobilizing new voters or persuading existing participants to their side. And though anyone familiar with a campaigns knows this is a false choice, the election outcome has already spurned a million dumb takes about why the theory that high turnout helps Democrats has “died” or other such drivel.

The people chiming in on this debate seem to be missing two broader points about the debate: one about how we formulate the question, and one about the role of black voters in the Democratic coalition. That’s what I want to write about today.


PS: Thanks to all of you who have sent in interesting questions over the last couple of weeks. I have been very busy writing and haven’t gotten to them all, but rest assured I will answer them — either directly or in a subscribers-only post.

What people miss in the debate over turnout

It helps to specify the question; and the role of black voters

Progressive activists have long believed that most non-voters agree with their policy positions and would win elections if they just turned out to vote. Bernie Sanders frequently said as much during his 2020 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, pledging to remake the political landscape with an army of new reliable, left-leaning (especially young) voters.

But ever since Donald Trump won a surprising amount of votes in the presidential race, people have been wondering if this theory carries water. Some have gone so far as to call empirical predictions of what would happen if everyone voted into question. (For the uninitiated, I have argued that Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016, conditional on policy positions and strategy staying constant, which it wouldn’t.) I think that most people are just trying to score political points, but there are some truths and myths worth thinking through here.

First, I think we need to be clearer about the question we’re asking. Is it: do Democrats do better when more people vote? Or: do Democrats do better when turnout increases for every demographic group. These are very different questions with very different answers! Typical analyses of turnout increases usually assume the latter, and that’s how you get answers like the one that Sanders has landed on.

But reality is not so simple. In 2020, early data indicate that we have seen a differential turnout increases versus 2016, with relative turnout increasing most among Hispanic voters. And although in Georgia the white share of the electorate looks to have dropped to its lowest level ever, according to some sources, producing the same results from my universal turnout exercises (a swing in vote share toward Democrats), it got there via different means and I think that’s important nuance.

But that’s not really here nor there. The point is rather that when we talk about turnout increases we’re usually talking about universal, uniform boosts for all voters. And that doesn’t really invalidate analyses that operate under those assumptions. But people should be aware that they won’t always hold — and when they inevitably don’t, it’s also important to realize that our predictions if they were true aren’t necessarily validated.

Okay, here’s a second, related point. The New York Times in an analysis last week made the point that Democrats turned Georgia blue (for the first time since 1992) primarily because white voters in wealthier, well-educated and suburban precincts switched from voting for Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. But they left out that those Democratic gains only mattered because black Georgians voted disproportionately for Biden (though the exact margin depends on which source you consult).

Perhaps if we weren’t so blinded by the turnout-versus-persuasion arguments on social media, we could acknowledge both sides of the story — just like campaigns do. That is arguably why Joe Biden won in the first place.

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What I'm Reading and Working On

If you can manage to find it somewhere, I have really been enjoying Jean Converse’s excellent history of polling entitled Survey Research in the United States. Also, Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth, which is a well-written introduction to “complexity economics” (though I can’t say much about whether his arguments hold much weight until I am finished reading it).

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