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No one can predict the turnout numbers for 2012, but the assumption that higher turnout will automatically help Obama win reelection is just that—an assumption.
It is traditionally thought that high turnout elections favor Democrats, and low turnout elections favor Republicans. The assumption is that those who come out to vote in exceptional circumstances are disproportionately Democratic voters—the young and racial minorities. This conventional wisdom is so pervasive, on both sides of the aisle, that Republicans hope for rain or snow on Election Day, while Democrats hope for clear skies and mild weather. In spite of this, there are several recent examples where higher turnout actually benefitted Republicans.
While Barack Obama won an impressive victory in 2008, he did not win based on a wave of previously untapped voters. The total vote in 2008 was up seven percent from 2004—not a large boost considering 3 to 4 percent of this can be attributed to population growth in that time period.
Obama won for two reasons. One was that he won over independents. The second was that he won record majorities of Democratic-leaning groups. The share of voters who were 18-29 years old only went from 17 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2008, but Obama won 66 percent of this age group, as opposed to John Kerry’s 54 percent. The Latino vote only narrowly increased, going from 8 percent to 9 percent of the electorate, but Obama won 67 percent here instead of Kerry’s 53 percent. And African-Americans only went from being 11 percent of all voters to 13 percent, but receiving 95 percent of the black vote, instead of Kerry’s 88 percent, was just as important as any increase in turnout.
The 2004 presidential election is one example where higher turnout benefited Republicans. John Kerry’s presidential campaign did a good job of increasing turnout over Al Gore’s 2000 totals. He received 19 percent more votes than Gore, who won the popular vote four years before. The Kerry campaign was happy with their turnout operation, and exit polls on Election Day showing them comfortably ahead had a ring of plausibility. However, George W. Bush increased his vote total by 24 percent over his 2000 total, giving him a 3-point victory.
Another example of higher turnout aiding Republicans was the 2010 Massachusetts Senate special election. It was initially believed to be a low turnout election that would select whoever won the Democratic primary. When Scott Brown starting polling within single digits of Martha Coakley, it was because right-of-center voters were incredibly fired up, while the dominant Democratic base was listless. It was thought that Brown could win a low turnout election, but he would lose a high turnout election. Due to the extraordinary national attention devoted to the race, turnout was high—exceeding the total votes in the previous gubernatorial election. But Brown was able to score a 5-point victory despite high turnout.
This month’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election is yet another example. In 2008, Wisconsin actually had a decline in the number of voters compared to 2004. A lower turnout environment produced a large Obama victory. After a year of near constant conflict, the gubernatorial recall election had high turnout for a non-presidential election. It surpassed the turnout of the 2010 gubernatorial election by more than 350,000 votes. Scott Walker actually received 70,000 more votes than John McCain did, and this high turnout led to a large Republican victory.
Is there an explanation for this counterintuitive behavior? It may be the case that higher turnout brings out an electorate that is less inclined towards Democratic client groups. If we think of Wisconsin as an example, no one had more reason to vote than members of public sector unions. And in a lower turnout election, they would have more influence on the result. A higher turnout election may mobilize voters who have little connection to any political interest groups, which makes them winnable for Republicans. It’s unlikely Scott Brown could have won in a state so heavily Democratic as Massachusetts without some sizable amount of voters who would never otherwise vote in a non-presidential election.
If turnout surges this November, don't automatically assume it means trouble for Mitt Romney.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.