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Progressives beware: high turnout now favours the right

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When Thomas Suozzi won New York’s third congressional district in Tuesday’s special election, it was just the latest in a wave of impressive results for Democrats in off-cycle ballots. Averaged across the 57 contested elections since the 2022 midterms, Democrats are running nine points better than we would expect based on the partisan make-up of the districts in question.

Yet at the same time, President Joe Biden consistently trails Donald Trump in the polls. How can we reconcile these conflicting narratives?

Biden’s age is surely a factor, but it can’t explain all of the disparity. Viable alternative candidates generally poll worse than the 81-year-old, not better. A better explanation is something more structural: the changing role of turnout.

While almost 70 per cent of the electorate cast a ballot in the last presidential election, special elections tend to mobilise much smaller crowds. And different levels of turnout mean different types of voters.

In a low-turnout election, an outsized share of votes are cast by the highly politically engaged — typically well-educated, well-off people. More peripheral voters — typically on lower incomes — tend to sit these out. And these different groups have different politics, meaning high-turnout and low-turnout elections can produce different results.

This partisan gradient to turnout was first demonstrated in a 2005 US study by Michael Martinez and Jeff Gill, which showed that Democrats historically benefited from higher turnout because of their status as the party of the working class. In US elections from the 1960s to 2000, the wealthy and well-educated voters who turned out come rain or shine were natural Republicans. Conversely, the wider the segment of society casting ballots, the more of them from lower socio-economic groups and the bluer the political environment.

Against this backdrop, it is little surprise that Democrats have historically put huge efforts into “get out the vote” campaigns, while Republicans have often sought to introduce hurdles to keep peripheral voters from voting.

But this age-old pattern has been turned on its head by the political realignment brought by Donald Trump’s arrival in 2016.

Before Trump, economically marginalised groups leaned left based on their economic interests. Today they lean increasingly rightward, as attitudes to cultural issues such as immigration exert more influence on vote choice.

The result, laid bare in a recent paper by Spencer Goidel and co-authors, is that the partisan turnout gradient has reversed. Now, the graduate-heavy voter pools in lower-turnout elections tend to benefit Democrats, and a larger, more working-class electorate no longer means a bluer one.

At the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, the typical “marginal abstainer” — someone who came close to voting but stayed home — leaned more Democratic than the average voter. By 2016 this had reversed, and the more people nudged from abstention to voting, the higher Trump’s vote share.

Under this new dynamic, a situation where Democrats fare well in lower-turnout special elections but struggle to translate that into commensurate success in a high-turnout presidential campaign is no surprise.

Trump’s base includes many who rarely participate in politics when his name is not on the ballot. These people stay home in special elections, padding Democratic margins, but they’ll be out in force in November.

And this is not a US-specific phenomenon. Britain’s EU referendum was an even clearer example, with a substantial number of not-usual-voters casting ballots in 2016 and tilting the balance towards Leave. Had only regular general election voters turned out, the Remain campaign would have won.

I have extended the methods of Martinez and Goidel to the UK, and this same pattern looks to be bleeding into British party politics. Historically, Labour benefited from higher turnout. But in 2019, the gradient flipped, as the Conservatives leaned into the Brexit divide, placing themselves on the side of non-graduates. The 2019 election may have been the first time that increased working class turnout boosted the Conservatives, not Labour.

This year’s elections will be won and lost for any number of reasons, and persuading swing voters will remain key. But any analysis that fails to take into account the new turnout dynamics will be incomplete.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

Data sources and methodology

Following Martinez and Gill (2005) and Goidel et al (2023), the relationship between turnout and partisan voting is modelled using a multinomial logistic regression which calculates the predicted probability of an individual a) voting at all, and b) voting for a particular party/candidate, based on detailed characteristics including their demographics (age, sex, race/ethnicity), socio-economic situation (income, employment, education), values (position on economic and cultural issues), political engagement, economic perceptions and approval of the president or prime minister.

The predicted probabilities of abstaining are then used to simulate different levels of turnout. For example, to simulate the result when only 30 per cent of the electorate votes, I take the 30 per cent of people with the highest probability of voting, and they “vote” for the party they are most likely to have supported. To simulate the result at 70 per cent turnout, I do the same thing with all but the 30 per cent least likely to have voted.

The data used in the models is from the US Cooperative Election Study (2008-2020), American National Election Studies (2000-2004) and British Election Study (1997-2019). Validated voting records are used for all US elections from 2008 onwards, and all UK elections from 2005 onwards. Earlier elections use self-reported voting.

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