Democrats and Republicans agree that high turnout hurts the GOP. But what if they're wrong?

·Chief National Correspondent
·8-min read

For two decades, many top Democratic strategists have supported the idea that demography is destiny and that high turnout will automatically benefit their party at the ballot box.

As such, they’ve increasingly designed political strategies around the idea that if they get enough voters to the polls — especially the young and people of color — they can win elections and create a permanent governing majority.

Republicans, for their part, have also spent the last 20 years believing that high turnout and immigration rates hurt the GOP. Last year, then-President Donald Trump warned that high voter turnout would doom Republicans. And in the last few months, Fox News personalities have told their viewers that immigrants are going to “replace” native-born Americans and dilute their share of the vote.

Residents wait in line to vote
Residents of Janesville, Wis., wait to vote on Nov. 3, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

And now, in Washington, members of Congress are locked in a bitter struggle over legislation to expand voting rights that is straining the Senate’s ability to function.

The apocalyptic language and heated tempers of the voting wars, however, are based to some degree on a myth. There’s little evidence that when more people vote it helps Democrats more than Republicans, according to two academics who have studied the impact of turnout on election outcomes.

“I assume that there are, you know, genuine beliefs on both sides. You know, the conservatives want election integrity and Democrats want access, but it is the case that it fits their partisan strategic motives as well. At least they think it does,” said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas, who co-authored the book “The Turnout Myth” with John Petrocik, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri.

“There's really not much evidence supporting the strategic partisan motivation for Democratic and Republican positioning on these issues,” Shaw said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “They've politicized issues that ought to be more thoughtfully considered.”

In their book, Shaw and Petrocik compile data showing that vote switching among casual voters — whom they call “peripheral” and others call “low-information” — is the biggest driver of who wins and who loses. And this vote switching, they argue, is driven by the short-term external forces shaping the race, such as the economy, as well as by the broad messages, performances and identities of the candidates.

These short-term forces, they contend, “produce shifts in the decisions of [voters] who consistently show up for elections. They have an even larger effect on those who are not consistent [voters].”

Voters cast their ballots
Voters casting their ballots in North Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 16, 2020. (Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)

The implications of this are significant. It means that much of the broad-scale strategy of the two political parties for a good part of this century has been, to put it mildly, unscientific.

Shaw and Petrocik’s hypothesis does not discount the importance of voting rights at a time when much of the Republican Party has committed itself to making it harder to vote. And they do not argue that turnout rates don’t matter. But their findings do have two significant implications.

One is for the way Democrats think about how to win elections. They have leaned too heavily in recent elections on mobilizing hard-core supporters and not focused enough on persuading voters, especially those who don’t pay a lot of attention to politics. The second implication is for how Republican voters think about the country becoming less white.

Many Democrats were influenced by a 2002 book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” by journalist John Judis and political scientist Ruy Teixeira. They argued that Democrats could regain the kind of political dominance they held for much of the 20th century, in part because the country was becoming more racially diverse. This argument — and the way it was oversimplified — also likely informed the way Republicans have thought about elections since then.

But Teixeira has since written extensively about how the book was misinterpreted. “We also emphasized that building this majority would require a very broad coalition, including many voters drawn from the white working class. This crucial nuance was quickly lost. And so, many Democratic pundits, operatives and elected officials have falsely come to believe that demographics are destiny,” Teixeira wrote last year.

By 2008, Teixeira said, many Democrats had lost sight of the nuance entirely.

Barack Obama
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama shows proof that he cast his vote in the 2008 presidential election. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

“After Obama’s historic victory [in 2008], our theory morphed from provocative projection to sacred gospel. Instead of focusing on the fact that this emerging majority only gave Democrats tremendous potential if they played their cards right, many progressives started to interpret it as a description of an inevitable future,” Teixeira wrote. “Democrats came to believe that demographic changes were saving them from the need to appeal to voters beyond the ranks of their most supportive groups.”

“That was a huge mistake,” he said. Teixeira noted that in the 2020 election, white working-class voters still represented 44 percent of all eligible voters in the country. That was down from 51 percent in 2008, but still accounted for nearly one out of every two Americans eligible to cast a ballot.

In their zeal to lean in to their most loyal supporters, Democrats have also glossed over the fact that Latinos are not a slam dunk for them.

“The data shows that many Latino voters, who represent the fastest-growing share of the electorate, are not firmly part of the Democratic base. Instead, they seem to be persuadable voters, presenting a potential opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans,” Nicole Narea wrote recently for Vox.

“This is especially true for voters who aren’t hyper partisan: new and infrequent voters, as well as people who flipped their votes in 2020 or who decided to sit the election out entirely.”

These “new and infrequent voters” are the same group that Shaw and Petrocik refer to as “peripheral voters.” And even though turnout in 2020 soared to its highest level in decades, it’s worth noting that there were 70 million Americans who were eligible to vote and did not do so, representing a massive group whose behavior at the polls is hard to predict and open to persuasion efforts by both parties.

A man sits next to a vote sign
A man outside a polling place in Atlanta on Jan. 5 during Georgia's Senate runoff elections. (Virginie Kippelen/AFP via Getty Images)

Narea also wrote, based on data from the progressive data firm Catalist, that while a majority of Latinos supported Joe Biden in 2020, the demographic saw an 8-point swing toward Trump compared with 2016.

And this gets to the second major implication of the turnout myth: Republican fears of a more diverse country appear to have been largely unfounded.

The 2020 election was a perfect example of this. The GOP lost the presidency but won most of the competitive U.S. Senate races and gained seats in the House. It also did much better in state legislative races than expected.

This all took place with what Catalist declared was the “most diverse electorate ever.”

Earlier this month, Nate Cohn explained in the New York Times that voters’ increasing diversity stems mainly from the fact that there are more Hispanics, Asian Americans and multiracial people eligible to vote. “Those groups back Democrats, but not always by overwhelmingly large margins,” Cohn said. So while Black voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic — although somewhat less so than they did in the Obama era — newer immigrants and their descendants don’t always vote as a liberal bloc.

In addition, population growth is exploding most in the South and West, often in states that lean Republican, and “where the Democrats don’t win nonwhite voters by the overwhelming margins necessary to overcome the state’s Republican advantage.”

“The increasing racial diversity among voters isn’t doing quite as much to help Democrats as liberals hope, or to hurt Republicans as much as conservatives fear,” Cohn concluded.

As for the voting wars in Congress, political scientist Lee Drutman agreed with Shaw and Petrocik’s conclusions but added a note of caution about the flurry of voting restrictions being passed by Republican state legislatures.

Demonstrators stand outside of the Georgia Capitol building
Demonstrators in Atlanta show their opposition to H.B. 531, Georgia's voter suppression bill. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

“Mostly, political scientists have found minimal effects of changes in voting laws on turnout. However, the effect is not zero, and given how knife’s-edge close many elections are, even a minimal effect can be consequential,” said Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the New America Foundation. “More significantly, these laws are being passed by politicians who are explicitly stating partisan goals, violating the most basic norms of democratic fairness.”

Still, Drutman said that partisan gerrymandering, in which congressional districts are drawn in such a way to give one party an advantage, are a much bigger problem for American democracy in terms of impact.

Shaw, meanwhile, said that the fraught political battles in Washington over voting accessibility reflect an inability or unwillingness to focus on the facts when it comes to what decides elections.

“I think we’ve somewhat lost our way in most of our willingness to try to articulate a politics that is engaging to peripheral voters and draws them in. There’s a sense that it’s a sucker’s bet among political professionals and they don’t want to do it,” Shaw said.

“Our argument is that if you really want to expand your coalition, you’ve got to figure out how to do that. And neither party seems to be all that interested in doing it.”

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