Who Benefits from Higher Turnout?

One of the features that will surely differentiate the 2012 US presidential elections from the 2010 midterm elections will be higher turnout: people the world over are more likely to turn out in more important elections, and there is a long pattern of precisely this behavior in US presidential and midterm elections.

Received wisdom regarding European politics is that higher turnout benefits the party of left, or, in the case of the US, the Democratic Party. After all, supporters of left parties tend to have lower socio-economic status, and as we know that socio-economic status is an important predictor of turnout, it stands that as a higher proportion of the population of the population votes this “turnout bias” for right-wing parties should decrease, and therefore the left should benefit.

Recent research by Henning Finseraas of the Norwegian Institute for Social Research and Kåre Vernby of Uppsala University presented last week at the inaugural European Political Science Association Annual Conference, however, casts doubt on this simple story. They use a Norwegian reform of early voting rules to get a clean way to study the effect of an increase in turnout on election results. They find that while the traditional story is true – increased turnout helps the social-democrats in Norway – it is also the case increased turnout helps the radical right party in Norway. Both the tradional right wing party and and the “left-libertarian” party in Norway were hurt by the increase in turnout. Their explanation for these findings is that radical right parties in Europe also tend to draw support from those with lower social economic status, and thus the mechanisms that normally help higher turnout have a positive impact on the vote for left parties should apply here as well. Their take home point is that we need to stop thinking about the effect of turnout on election results in simple dichotomous matter of whether this helps the left or the right. The full paper is available here.

What does any of this have to say about the United States in 2012? With the appropriate caveats about what a study of voting in Norway can teach us about voting in the US, my own personal working assumption has been that Obama and the Democratic Party would get an automatic boost vis a vis 2010 due to a more left leaning composition of the electorate for the presidential election due to higher turnout. The wild card here is the Tea Party, which one could conceivably think of in terms similar to a radical right party in the European sense, at least in so far as it has positioned itself to the right of the traditional right wing party in the country. While the Tea Party will not run a separate candidate for president, its supporters can be expected to provide support to whomever the eventual Republican nominee is. However, the mechanism proposed by Finseraas and Vernby—lower socio economic status of far right supporters—does not look likely to be at play here, e.g., see this NY Times Poll claiming that Tea Party supporters are “wealthier and more well-educated than the general public”. So we are potentially in the interesting situation whereby if the authors got the story but not the mechanism correct, then we may expect to see the turnout increase in 2012 relative to 2010 not help the Democrats as much as we would expect if turnout also goes up among Tea Party supporters; however, if the authors got the mechanism (socio-economic status) correct, then the US’s “radical-right” party should not be expected to benefit from an increase in turnout as much as Norway’s did.

5 Responses to Who Benefits from Higher Turnout?

  1. Andrew Gelman June 24, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    The usual approach would be to compare 2012 to 2008, 2004, etc, no?

  2. Bonnie Meguid June 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Before we apply these conclusions to the US, we should probably ask why turnout is higher. In other words, is the same mechanism driving more people to the polls in Norway going to be at work in the US in 2012? The answer matters for the results we expect to see. Maybe it is the case, as assumed here, that it is a more interesting election, and thus, “naturally” more people will be drawn to the polls. In this case, Josh is right to highlight that higher turnout overall disproportionately affects those parties whose electorate typically stays home. However, what else could be driving the disproportionate increase in the Norwegian Progress party’s vote? To answer this question, we must not forget about the role of the party as a strategic actor. Perhaps, more constituents turned out because the party did a better and deliberate job of mobilizing its voters. To bring this back to the US, therefore, we need to think not just about the socioeconomic status of potential Tea Party voters, but also the concerted efforts of Tea Party candidates and activists to turn out their vote.

  3. Matthew Shugart June 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I would assume that any presumed boost for Obama from expected higher turnout in 2012 (compared to 2010) would come from minority voters, rather than downscale voters.

    It makes sense that where a “radical right” (including the “tea party”) exists, it, too, would benefit from higher turnout to the extent that its electorate is lower in SES.

    It is not at all clear to me what the net effect might be for Dems. Some of that may depend on who the Republican nominee is and a host of other factors I’ll leave to Monkey Cage readers who understand the US electorate far better than I do.

  4. David Jandura June 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    This September, Norway will also be piloting internet voting in ten municipalities and youth voting (ages 16-17) in twenty. The research I’ve seen on internet voting shows it doesn’t really increase turnout (Bochsler June 2010), but there are still two new reforms that will be possible to examine.

  5. eric June 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    In my experience of the 2010 election, so-called “Tea Party” voters turned out quite a bit. At least my cursory analysis of specific state legislative districts would show me that. But that would be expected for that group anyway, as they tend to be older and tend to have above average wages and education. They already vote a lot, in general, and rarely, if ever, vote for Democrats. The Democratic party will get a boost in several places in 2012 (as it did in 2008) as fairly large groups of Democratic voters, for whatever reason, tend to not vote in off-year elections. Why they do that is a mystery to be solved. My guess is that they tend to be of lower socio-economic status and this has an influence, in some manner, on what elections they consider important. They also tend to be younger, so off-year elections may not seem to have much influence on their lives (of course, this is a terrible mistake on their part).