The Case of the Missing Voter

Following the 2012 presidential election, Sean Trende promoted “The Case of the Missing White Voter.

…if our assumption about the total number of votes cast is correct, almost 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. This isn’t readily explainable by demographic shifts either; although whites are declining as a share of the voting-age population, their raw numbers are not…

In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home.

We know that Ted Cruz turned this idea into a campaign strategy – with a focus on the supposed “missing” white evangelical voter. Last week Donald Trump’s campaign staff suggested that their candidate could upend the electoral map by turning out “missing” (white) Reagan Democrats.

This weekend, Bernie Sanders suggested to Chuck Todd that his own campaign had faltered because of another group of “missing” voters.

TODD: I have quite some interesting numbers here. So 17 of the 25 states with the highest levels of income inequality have held primaries. Sixteen of those 17 states have been won by Hillary Clinton, not by you. Why?

SANDERS: Well, because poor people don’t vote. I mean, that’s just a fact. That’s a sad reality of American society. And that’s what we have to transform. We have one – as you know, one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on Earth. We have done a good job bringing young people in. I think we have done – had some success with lower income people. But in America today – the last election in 2014, 80% percent of poor people did not vote.

This claim is nothing new for Bernie Sanders. It has been at the heart of his political analysis for a long time. Here’s what he said about it 30 years ago.

I think from one end of this country to the other people are ripe for political revolution. Fifty percent of the people do not bother voting in the presidential and statewide elections. The vast majority of those not voting are low-income people who have given up on America.

As Steve Benen pointed out, Sanders is right about the fact that low income Americans are less likely to vote. In 2014, he pointed to this survey:

All forms of political participation matter, but voting is among the most concrete ways that citizens influence public policy – and the wealthier are far more likely to vote. According to the Census Bureau, 81.6 percent of Americans making over $150,000 reported that they voted in the 2008 presidential election. In contrast, roughly half of citizens making under $30,000 reported voting.

In basing an electability argument on “missing voters,” the first test any candidate faces is whether the numbers would make a difference. Sean Trende qualified his remarks about missing white voters by saying there aren’t enough to be determinative. Cruz and Trump are merely engaging in wishful thinking (surprise, surprise).

Sanders has a case to make about the number of missing low income voters. However, he has two other issues that he failed to contend with.

1. Based on the 2016 race so far, “Sanders has lost Democratic voters with household incomes below $50,000 by 55 percent to 44 percent to Clinton across primaries where network exit polls have been conducted.” To make the case that he is losing this race because low income Americans are not voting, he would have to demonstrate that those who don’t vote would support him. There is no data to back up that claim.

2. Sanders has repeatedly suggested that his electability (as well as his theory of change) is based on the idea that this country is ready for a revolution. To the extent that the argument is based on low income Americans voting, he hasn’t demonstrated that in this primary.

We all know that voter participation in this country is a problem – much more so in midterm elections than in presidential years. But simply identifying “missing” voters doesn’t solve it. This is something we should be talking about more often in this election. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have similar proposals about how to increase voter participation. Since Republicans want to move in the opposite direction, this is a clear example of why elections matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .