Could Turning Out Unregistered Voters Prompt a Surge for Sanders?

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders vows a revolution based on turnout, but his hopes might be misplaced.

In a recent interview for Rolling Stone, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders argued that the key to victory for his campaign will be to turn out the vote. As he told Rolling Stone, “I will not get elected unless there are a lot of working-class people, who have turned their backs on the political system, now getting engaged in the system.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 41.9 percent of voting-age Americans voted in 2014, the lowest turnout rate since 1978. And while 61.8 percent of Americans turned out in the last presidential election in 2012, the long-term trend has been one of decline.

But if voter turnout were to grow dramatically in 2016, it’s not so clear-cut that Sanders would be the winner of those votes. The majority of today’s non-voters aren’t disengaged partisans waiting for the right candidate to ignite their interest. Rather, the vast majority of non-voters self-identify as “moderates” – if they have an ideological identity at all. This means the candidate most likely to benefit from greater turnout might be the one who best appeals to the deciding bloc in any presidential contest: the center.

In Lincoln Park Strategies’ latest national survey of 1000 Americans, conducted Nov. 17-19, we found that among Americans who aren’t registered to vote, only 11% consider themselves liberal and just 13% consider themselves conservative. A majority of unregistered Americans consider themselves moderate (51%) and a quarter (25%) don’t know. Among registered voters, in contrast, 27% consider themselves liberal, 21% are conservative, and 47% say they are moderate, while just 4% say they don’t know. In other words, there’s a 16-point difference between the share of liberals among registered voters versus unregistered voters, and an 8-point difference between the share of conservatives.

Setting aside unregistered Americans who do not know their political ideology – assuming they are unlikely to turn out to vote – the remaining pool of unregistered potential voters becomes 67% moderate in its ideological makeup, while the share of liberals increases to 15% and conservatives make up 18%.

Another factor that makes it unlikely that turning out the vote will result in either a liberal or conservative “surge” is that many unregistered voters are considerably less informed about the differences between the various candidates.

For example, our survey found that many unregistered voters do not see how the ideology of Bernie Sanders differs from that of Donald Trump’s. Indeed, among Americans who are not registered to vote, 17% think that Senator Sanders is liberal, and 20% think that he is a moderate. Similarly, 17% think that Donald Trump is a liberal and 22% consider him moderate.

To reach the Americans whom Bernie Sanders is hoping will lead the country’s political revolution, Sanders will need to fight not just inertia from the non-voting public to get them to the polls, but a lack of knowledge about the issues central to his campaign. And after all that, he may still not be the candidate who benefits.

Stefan Hankin

Stefan Hankin is the President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C.