Nation & World

Voter turnout approaches some records, breaks others

5 min read

Voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election was not record-breaking, but it appears that it will approach the roughly 67 percent of the eligible citizenry who voted in 1960. It will take at least two weeks before all the absentee ballots are counted and a firm figure is available. Judging from past experience, however, it would appear that roughly 134 million Americans voted in the 2008 general election — a 65 percent turnout rate.

One modern record has been set. According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, an estimated 153 million Americans are registered to vote, which is nearly 74 percent of the eligible population and higher than the previous record of 72 percent established in 1964.

The upsurge is partly attributable to issues that had sparked heightened turnout in the previous presidential election. In 2004, 122 million Americans cast a ballot in the Bush-Kerry race, the highest number on record. Although the turnout rate of 61 percent of eligible adults was below historical highs, it was nonetheless higher than in any election since 1968. Driving the upsurge was anxiety over the war in Iraq and a weak economy. These issues carried into the 2008 nominating races, which were also compelling for other reasons. Barack Obama was the first candidate of his race to have a realistic chance of winning a major-party presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to have a realistic chance.

Primary election turnout increased sharply in 2008. Although it fell just short of the modern record set in 1976, it was a full 10 percentage points higher than the recent average. The participation momentum from the Democratic primaries carried into the general election. One indicator is that registration levels rose in states where Obama and Clinton campaigned heavily, but actually dropped in some other states. Even at the end of the campaign there were a half dozen states — nearly all of them non-battleground states during both the primaries and the general election — where the registration level in 2008 was somewhat lower than it had been in 2004.

Americans historically have voted in higher numbers when the nation confronts big issues. That was as true in the late 1800s and 1930s as it has been more recently. The meltdown in the financial markets a month ago likely confirmed Americans’ belief that 2008 was a watershed election.

The parties have recently placed more emphasis on their get-out-the-vote operations. This time, moreover, the Obama campaign had the money and organization to carry that effort to a new level. In its operation and through its candidate, the Obama campaign sought to mobilize minorities and young adults. Estimates based on comparisons of the 2004 and 2008 exit polls indicate that the effort was successful. The biggest makeover of the electorate came in minority participation. In 2008, non-Hispanic whites constituted 74 percent of the voters, down from 77 percent in 2004. African Americans were 13 percent of the electorate, compared with 11 percent four years earlier. In fact, for the first time ever, black Americans appear to have voted at a rate equal to their number in the population. The Hispanic turnout rate changed only slightly from 2004 and continues to lag behind nearly every other major demographic group.

Some observers will be chagrined that the turnout of young adults (defined here as those in the 18-29-year age group) increased by only 1 percentage point from its 2004 level. According to the exit polls, they were 18 percent of the voters this time, compared with 17 percent last time. Nevertheless, the increase pushed their turnout rate to roughly 50 percent — a level not seen since the Vietnam-era election of 1972 (when 18-21-year-olds were first eligible to vote). It is worth recalling that turnout among young adults was roughly 35 percent in 1996. In this context, their turnout rate of 50 percent in 2008 is a significant gain.

Issues rather than the news media were the driving force in this year’s increase in voter turnout. If anything, the media nearly got in the way of increased turnout, fixated as they were on trivial issues for much of the campaign. The meltdown of the financial markets directed their attention, and that of their audiences, to the real issues of this campaign.

The 2008 campaign was historical in the election of America’s first black president and a near revolution in grassroots campaigning. However, the full historical significance of any election is registered by what happens later, as well as by what happened in the campaign. The 1976 election is an example. Waged in the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter’s victory was heralded as a transforming election. But after a weak economy and an unsettled world undermined the Carter presidency, the 1976 election became a footnote when analysts fix their gaze on the past. Obama’s elevation to the presidency will fare better as a historical marker but its full transformational promise lies in the future, depending on how well he’s able to govern.

Thomas E. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Kennedy School of Government.