One of the sillier aspects of postelection analysis is the notion that any one factor determined the result, and I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting as much. Still, the swing of white working-class voters was undeniably crucial. To that point, Craig Gilbert, of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, has noted that large swaths of Wisconsin have now been carried by Obama, Trump, Republican governor Scott Walker and Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.
The turnout contrast also doesn’t answer how influential was James Comey’s misguided October letter about Clinton’s email. Her campaign believes it depressed her turnout and lifted Trump’s, and it may well have.
Either way, though, turnout is a problem for Democrats that will persist long after this election. Many strong Democratic constituencies — like young voters, Latinos and Asian-Americans — have relatively low turnout rates. African-American turnout has trailed white turnout when Obama was not on the ballot.
Obama, for his part, has long had a minor obsession with the Democrats’ popularity among nonvoters. “Hopefully, it’s a reminder that elections matter and voting counts,” he said after Trump’s win. “I don’t know how many times we have to relearn this lesson, because we ended up having 43 percent of the country not voting who were eligible to vote.”
What can the party do about it?
For starters, it should continue to fight hard for voting rights. Doing so puts it on the right side of history and also helps the party tactically. There is a reason that Republican officials have been trying to restrict voting hours and eligibility: Many of them are afraid of high turnout. The Republicans’ new political dominance will make the fight harder, but it must continue.
Second, the Democrats should recommit themselves to old-fashioned organizing without giving up on the emerging science of voter turnout. Academic researchers have learned a lot in the last decade about voter behavior and turnout tactics. There is much more to learn, as this year’s disappointment makes clear. The ubiquity of social media and smartphones creates opportunities to get more people to vote.
Finally, the Democrats should remember that inspiring turnout and persuading swing voters aren’t separate problems. It’s a lot easier to do both with a galvanizing message that makes voters feel part of a larger project — be it an uplifting project or a combative one.
The Democratic Party still has many of the same long-term strengths that it did two weeks ago. Its constituencies are growing, and the Republican Party, for all of its power, is filled with contradictions. But Democrats need to reach both their new constituencies and their old, working-class base — and then make sure that people who agree with the party on the issues actually get out to vote.
David Leonhardt, “The Democrats’ Real Turnout Problem”, The New York Times (20 November 2016), SR3.