The Magazine

The End of a Left-wing Fantasy

There wasn't a huge untapped pool of Democratic voters.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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IT'S NOT DIFFICULT TO DETECT a level of demoralization among some Democrats that can't be explained by the loss of a single presidential election by three points. One reason may be the death, on November 2, of a myth that has long nourished the hopes of the American left--the idea that tens of millions of non-voters (if only they could be turned out) were an ace up their sleeve.

For decades, liberals and progressives pointed out that Americans vote at much lower rates than Europeans. Since non-voting is especially high among groups that normally lean to the left--minorities and those with the lowest incomes and formal education--this meant that the building blocks of a more liberal, even social democratic, politics existed in the United States. But these people (so the thinking went) were excluded from the political process by complicated registration procedures and the failure of parties and candidates to raise issues that motivated them. To many on the left, it was a reassuring image: Outside the political system, looking in, were enough potential voters to swamp conservatives (and moderates for that matter). It meant history was still on their side, since ways would surely be found sooner or later to mobilize these citizens.

Many Democrats shared this belief, which is why they joined progressives in passing the "motor voter" registration law in 1993. Many journalists were believers, too, regularly reporting that high turnout naturally favors Democrats.

But there were always two things wrong with this line of argument. It exaggerated the number of non-voters and it mischaracterized their likely political views. Because turnout ratios are typically calculated as a percentage of all adult residents of the United States, the number of non-voters misleadingly includes millions of people who are not eligible to vote because they're not U.S. citizens or, in many states, because they are convicted felons. There have always been millions fewer non-voters out there to be mobilized than was suggested.

More important, the myth mischaracterized non-voters politically. It's true that minorities and the very poorest Americans have historically voted at disproportionately low rates. But it doesn't follow that the average non-voter falls to the left of the political aisle. For example, U.S. Census Bureau data suggest that non-voters who didn't finish high school at most made up one in five non-voters in 2000. The same data suggest that up to 30 million non-voters in 2000 had either some college education, a bachelor's degree, or an advanced degree. In other words, non-voters included many millions of middle-class Americans. In other cases, the myth-making left politically miscategorized groups that historically voted at low rates. African Americans might vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But politically sluggish young people come close to splitting evenly between Democratic- and Republican-leaning views, despite 1960s memories to the contrary. Hispanics are turning out to be much more politically diverse than some hoped (and others feared), even if we aren't sure exactly how many voted Republican this year. Finally, the ranks of non-voters have also included millions of rural and small-town residents--many of them religious--whose incomes might connote urban poverty but whose political sympathies don't. In sum, it isn't obvious at all that most non-voters would be heavily inclined to support left-of-center candidates if they entered a polling place.

The 2004 election results bear this out and may lay the myth permanently to rest. The campaign caused a healthy increase in turnout, but at least as many of the new voters cast Republican ballots as Democratic ones. Nationwide, voters increased from about 105 million in 2000 to somewhere near 120 million this year. That's a rise in turnout from about 56 percent to around 61 percent of eligible voters. In some of the battleground states, participation increases were even more impressive. In Ohio, turnout went from 57 percent in 2000 to about 66 percent this year; in Florida from about 55 percent to 66 percent; and in Minnesota from 67 percent to nearly 75 percent. (These percentages are calculated from Census Bureau population numbers for 2000 and estimates for 2003--assuming a steady percentage of each state's non-citizens and felons over 18 since the 2000 census.)