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What Caused Turnout to Rise in the 2008 Election?

9:21 AM, Jan 15, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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After counting all the ballots, the 2008 election produced record year for voter turnout.

Many believe president-elect Barack Obama's candidacy was solely responsible for producing the boost. He generated significant enthusiasm among supporters and sent a thrill up the leg of many members of the media. These candidate characteristics no doubt helped drive people to the polls.

But George Mason University political scientist Michael P. McDonald believes the explanation is more complex. McDonald's website served as an excellent source of information about early voting, turnout, and other useful data during the 2008 campaign

He notes that this year's 61.6 percent turnout rate among eligible voters represents the third consecutive increase in presidential elections--a trend that contradicts some of the conventional wisdom in the media, as George Washington University's John Sides notes. The modern low was in 1996, but 2000, 2004 and 2008 all witnessed steady increases.

McDonald recent published a paper exploring the reasons underlying these recent gains. He argues changes in early voting may have something to do with it. In 2008, 1 out of 3 votes were cast before Election Day. That's up sharply from the 20 percent in 2004 that cast ballots early.

He also argues both parties boosted their get-out-the-vote efforts to new levels of sophistication in the last cycle. The GOP's fine tuning of its 72-hour program and the Obama campaign's use of mobile technology to maximize turnout are good examples.

These increases in turnout--due to changes in election laws and technology--have permanently changed the nature and tactics of political campaigns in America.

Read McDonald's paper on changes in turnout here.