Friday, March 6, 2009

Presidential Election Voter Turnout

The final tabulations for the 2008 presidential election have come in, and a massive 61.6% turnout of eligible voters, numbering in excess of 131 million, was reported!
In celebration of this news (and to put it in a bit of perspective), I have decided to offer a historical survey of presidential election voter turnouts.

Presidential Election Voter Turnout: 1824-2008
1824 26.9 Adams-Jackson-Crawford-Clay
1828 57.6 Jackson-Adams
1832 55.4 Jackson-Clay
1836 57.8 Van Buren-Harrison
1840 80.2 Harrison-Van Buren
1844 78.9 Polk-Clay
1848 72.7 Taylor-Cass-Van Buren
1852 69.6 Pierce-Scott
1856 78.9 Buchanan-Fremont-Fillmore
1860 81.2 Lincoln-Douglas-Breckinridge-Bell
1864 73.8 Lincoln-McClellan
1868 78.1 Grant-Seymour
1872 71.3 Grant-Greeley
1876 81.8 Hayes-Tilden
1880 79.4 Garfield-Hancock
1884 77.5 Cleveland-Blaine
1888 79.3 Harrison-Cleveland
1892 74.7 Cleveland-Harrison-Weaver
1896 79.3 McKinley-Bryan
1900 73.2 McKinley-Bryan
1904 65.2 Roosevelt-Parker
1908 65.4 Taft-Bryan
1912 58.8 Wilson-Taft-Roosevelt-Debs
1916 61.6 Wilson-Hughes
1920 49.2 Harding-Cox
1924 48.9 Coolidge-Davis-La Follette
1928 56.9 Hoover-Smith
1932 56.9 Roosevelt-Hoover
1936 61.0 Roosevelt-Landon
1940 62.5 Roosevelt-Willkie
1944 55.9 Roosevelt-Dewey
1948 53.0 Truman-Dewey-Thurmond-Wallace
1952 63.3 Eisenhower-Stevenson
1956 60.6 Eisenhower-Stevenson
1960 62.8 Kennedy-Nixon
1964 61.9 Johnson-Goldwater
1968 60.8 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace
1972 55.2 Nixon-McGovern
1976 53.6 Carter-Ford
1980 52.7 Reagan-Carter-Anderson
1984 53.1 Reagan-Mondale
1988 50.2 Bush-Dukakis
1992 55.2 Clinton-Bush-Perot
1996 49.1 Clinton-Dole-Perot
2000 51.3 Bush-Gore-Nader
2004 55.3 Bush-Kerry
2008 61.6 Obama-McCain

There are several noteworthy features regarding this data:
1) For our nation's first nine presidential elections, most states opted to not even bother keeping records of voting results, since state legislatures were responsible for selecting the electors who would choose the president from the Electoral College. This dismissive attitude toward popular will clearly had an impact on how many citizens deemed it worthwhile to even get out and vote, as is evidenced by the abysmally low number of voters (26.9%) who bothered to cast a ballot in the first presidential election for which this information was recorded (1824). Thankfully, voter turnout has never sunk that low again, in no small part because...
2) Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828 was a turning point in the history of American presidential elections. Prior to Jackson, the culture of American democracy was such that individuals of low socioeconomic status were discouraged from participating in the electoral process. Much as was the prevailing attitude in the mother country, England, the idea was that those who did not own land were not educated or well-connected enough to really understand the nuances of government, and as such should defer to their wealthier superiors. Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828 shot this notion to shreds - he openly appealed to the lower-classes for their votes, and challenged the notion that only pre-designated elites were qualified to select a country's leaders. The egalitarian nature of this message was nothing short of revolutionary, and we are still feeling its effects today; even though Jackson himself only targeted economically disadvantaged white males, the precedent he established of making it politically taboo to advocate electoral elitism laid the foundations for the movements that would eventually enfranchise all of America's other politically disempowered groups, including blacks, women, and 18-to-21-year-olds. Jackson was of course an immediate beneficiary of this movement as well, managing to increase voter turnout by a staggering 30.7% and winning the largest popular landslide of the 19th century. It is hardly a coincidence that it was this campaign which led to the birth of the Democratic Party.
3) A second electoral revolution, albeit of a more temporary sort, occurred with the election of 1840. It was in this contest that the atmosphere of American political campaigns reached its hedonistic zenith, because it was at this time that the nascent Whig Party - desperate to put forth a president after two consecutive unsuccessful campaigns - took the methods that Jackson had pioneered in 1828 and racheted them up a notch. Like the Jackson campaign of 1828, the Whigs of 1840 selected a popular war hero as their candidate (William Henry Harrison), and like the Democrats of that year, spread a populist message through grassroots political organizing. Unlike the 1828 Jackson campaign, however, the 1840 Harrison campaign increased the carnival atmosphere surrounding presidential campaigns. While such a premise may be hard for contemporary Americans to imagine, at the time political activism was an increasingly popular way of people to spend their free time. Alcoholic beverages were liberally served, barbecues that caused wooden tables to creak were whipped up, local bands would come from miles around to perform at rallies, orators of local and national renown would come to deliver spellbinding speeches, and people could revel in the comradery of their family, close friends, and entire community in pursuit of a common goal - namely, the victory of their own candidate against a despised adversary. While these factors had long predated the 1840 election, they were increased to a level never before seen with that contest, as the Whig party seized upon a brilliant campaign slogan for their candidate ("Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", in reference to Harrison's famous military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe and the surname of his erstwhile running mate) and used the vast financial resources at their disposal (unlike the Democrats, the Whigs were favored by the wealthy in America, and thus had far more money to spend) to lavish in creating the kind of festive atmosphere that American voters were known to love (see above). They even managed to brilliantly synthesize the American love of intoxication with the cause of political egalitarianism - by quoting a supporter of Harrison's opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as saying that all of Harrison's supporter lived in log cabins and loved drinking hard cider, the Whigs found an excellent excuse to provide gallons of hard cider at every campaign stop, urging their supporters to get drunk as a way of showing their solidarity with the common Americans that Van Buren allegedly despised. By the time the election was over, voter turnout had reached 80.2%, one of only three elections in which four-fifths of all possible voters actually turned out to vote (the other two being the 1860 election, in which Lincoln was chosen and a Civil War started, and the 1876 election, in which the American people chose reform and had their ballots flung in their faces). While the conservative revolution for which the Whigs had hoped was cut short by Harrison's untimely death a mere one month after taking office (his successor, John Tyler, was a Jacksonian in ideas, even though he personally detested Jackson the man), the 1840 campaign had a much more signifcant legacy: As a result of the campaign ethos it established, every presidential election for the next sixty years would see turnouts of 70% or more; since then, no election has surpassed 65% in turnout.
3) The next period in the history of American election turnouts spans from 1904 to 1968. In these elections, we see a trend emerging that has held to this day - elections in which the consequences are perceived as being especially great (such as wartime elections or elections that occur during periods of great economic calamity) and elections in which one or both candidates are the recipients of tremendous personal popularity receive higher turnouts than elections in which the times are more tranquil, the candidates are viewed as more lackluster, or the outcome is in general viewed as foreordained. Thus the election of 1904 saw a high voter turnout (relative to the statistical paradigm established for this era) due to the enormous personal popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt; 1908 saw a slightly higher turnout (the highest of the past century) due to the popularity of Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan among many, and the animosity with which he was held among an even larger number; 1912 saw a decline in voter turnout due to the prevailing assumption that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was bound to be elected (thanks to the Republicans being split between incumbent William Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt); 1916 saw an increase in voter turnout due to concerns over America's potential involvement in the First World War, which was at that time tearing Europe apart and from which we had managed to avoid interference; the elections of 1920 and 1924 both reflected the widespread disenchantment with politics and social activism in general, and its willful reversion to the laissez-faire spirit of the pre-Roosevelt period of American political history resulted in a significant dip in voter turnout; the election of 1928 saw a modest increase in voter turnout due to the moderate interest taken in the personalities of the two candidates, Herbert Hoover and Alfred Smith; the election of 1932 saw the same level of turnout due to concerns over the Great Depression; the elections of 1936 and 1940 saw tremendous increases in voter turnout due to the personal popularity of President Franklin Roosevelt (who had not been as personally popular when he first ran for president in 1932, winning primarily because of the failures of his opponent, the incumbent Herbert Hoover); the elections of 1944 and 1948 saw dips in voter turnout due to the perception that the outcomes of those elections were foreordained (a perception that was proven to be inaccurate in the case of the 1948 election); and the elections from 1952 to 1968 saw high voter turnout that spurred on first by the extreme popularity of the Republican and Democratic candidates from the first two elections (war hero Dwight Eisenhower and charismatic intellectual Adlai Stevenson), and then continued by the ability of both parties to capitalize on the momentum established by those candidates in subsequent contests. Thus in these elections the personal popularity of one or both of the major candidates and the pressing nature of immediate economic and/or international circumstances caused certain elections to see increase in voter turnout, whereas elections with factors that were conducive to voter disinterest saw a correlative decline in voter participation.
4) The elections from 1972 to 2004 were all marked by widespread voter distinterest. Whereas every election from 1840 to 1900 saw a voter turnout of 70% or higher, and while thirteen of the sixteen elections from 1904 to 1968 had turnouts surpassing 55% (with ten of them surpassing 60%), the elections from 1972 to 2004 never broke 55% turnout. This can be attributed to a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with, distrust of, and general jadedness toward the American political process. Even candidates who were considered to be personally popular (most notably Ronald Reagan and William Clinton) were only popular relative to the general norm of politicians being unpopular figures; the genuine affection and enthusiasm that had been inspired by presidential candidates before 1972 was nowhere to be seen in any of the presidential elections that occurred in the thirty-two years following it, with the Reagan and Clinton candidacies being flaccid imitations of their predecessors. Every contest in this more than three-decade period saw a turn-out between 49% and 55%. The elections with the largest turnouts were those in 1972, 1992, and 2004, each of which took place during a period of great international and/or economic turmoil; those with the lowest turnouts occurred in 1988, 1996, and 2000, during which time peace abroad and prosperity at home lowered the sense of urgency that was needed to drive voters to the polls.
5) The 2008 election likely begins a new period in the history of American voter participation. It was a perfect storm of those factors that have been known to increase voter turnout since our modern era began in 1904 - significant immediate issues of pressing concern to average Americans (which in this case involved both economic and international concerns, whereas in most elections it is either one or the other) and a candidate whose personal charisma inspired genuine enthusiasm among voters (Democrat Barack Obama), as opposed to the pallid reactions stimulated by the candidates chosen by the two major parties in the previous nine elections. Should Obama succeed in addressing the economic and international crises currently facing our country, his personal popularity will likely not only increase, but solidify, so that by 2012 he will have supporting him a massive political coalition that will help him win by large numbers and with high voter turnout, similar to Franklin Roosevelt's movement from the 1936 presidential election. Should he fail, voter turnout is still likely to at least plateau by 2012, as the desire to remove him from office will likely mirror the sentiments against Hebert Hoover in 1932. And of course, if the Republicans should nominate a charismatic candidate who stimulates genuine enthusiasm among his base (Michael Huckabee), the positive feelings among liberals will be echoed with a similar reaction among conservatives. Even so, the ball lies mostly in Obama's court - he will either stimulate high voter turnout and a favorable landslide by mirroring Roosevelt from 1936, or stimulate high voter turnout and an unfavorable landslide by mirroring Hoover from 1932.

This is my analysis of the recent voter turnout results, put in a larger historical framework. Any thoughts?

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