Despite lofty predictions by some academics, pundits, and practitioners that voter turnout would reach levels not seen since the turn of the last century, the percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots in the 2008 presidential election stayed at virtually the same relatively high level as it reached in the polarized election of 2004, a study announced yesterday.
The American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported that voter turnout in Tuesday’s election was the same in percentage as it was four years ago — or at most has risen by less than 1 percent.
The study says between 126.5 million and 128.5 million Americans cast ballots in the presidential election, representing 60.7 percent or, at most, 61.7 percent of those eligible to vote in the country.
“A downturn in the number and percentage of Republican voters going to the polls seemed to be the primary explanation for the lower than predicted turnout,” the report said. Compared to 2004, Republican turnout declined by 1.3 percentage points to 28.7 percent, while Democratic turnout increased by 2.6 points from 28.7 percent in 2004 to 31.3 percent in 2008.
“Many people were fooled (including this student of politics although less so than many others) by this year’s increase in registration (more than 10 million added to the rolls), citizens’ willingness to stand for hours even in inclement weather to vote early, the likely rise in youth and African American voting, and the extensive grassroots organizing network of the Obama campaign into believing that turnout would be substantially higher than in 2004,” Curtis Gans, the center’s director, said in the report. “But we failed to realize that the registration increase was driven by Democratic and independent registration and that the long lines at the polls were mostly populated by Democrats.”
Gans attributed the GOP downturn to three factors:
1) Sen. John McCain’s efforts to unite the differing factions in the Republican Party by the nomination of Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee was a singular failure. By election time many culturally conservative Republicans still did not see him as one of their own and stayed home, while moderate Republicans saw the nomination of Palin reckless and worried about McCain’s steadiness.
2) As events moved towards Election Day, there was a growing perception of a Democratic landslide, discouraging GOP voters.
3) The 2008 election was a mirror image of the 2004 election. In the 2004 election, the enthusiasm level was on the Republican side. By Election Day, Democratic voters were not motivated by their candidate but rather by opposition to President Bush, while Republican voters had a much greater liking for their standard bearer. In 2008 and according to polls from several sources, by at least 20 percentage points, Obama enjoyed stronger allegiance than McCain. Even the best get-out-the-vote activities tend to be as successful as the affirmative emotional context in which they are working. In 2004, that context favored the GOP. In 2008, it favored the Democrats.