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Unlikely Voters

Our old friend and master of statistics Nate Silver has an interesting column that points out an interesting fact. Most polls try to survey only likely voters, since only people who vote determine elections.

But a recent survey did the opposite, surveying people who were either not registered to vote, or who said they were not likely to vote. The results were — to say the least — interesting:

Among these adults, 43 percent said they preferred Mr. Obama, while 17 percent backed Mr. Romney. Since quite a few Americans fit into this category – about 4 in 10 adults will not vote in November – it is easy to see how Mr. Obama could have a double-digit lead when they are added back into the total …. But those adults will not help Mr. Obama any if they do not show up on Nov. 6.

So the excuse that some people have that their vote doesn’t matter isn’t true. It only doesn’t matter because they don’t vote.

Another excuse that people give for not voting is that they don’t like either of the candidates from the two major political parties. In the survey “about 20 percent of unlikely voters said they would prefer to vote for a third-party candidate for president – much larger than in polls of likely voters.”

Fledgling political parties like the Libertarians and the Greens thus face something of a Catch-22. Many adults who might otherwise be inclined to support them do not bother to vote, possibly because they do not regard the parties as viable and think voting would be a waste of time. But without doing a little better at the ballot booth, it is hard for these minor parties to demonstrate their viability and gain any momentum.

So by not voting for third parties, non-voters are virtually guaranteeing that those parties will never gain any traction. Ironically, it is a self-fulfilling prophesy.



  1. jonah wrote:

    It looks like in the case of Annie Provencher, mentioned in the link about non-voters, that there is still some after-effects from the Obama Vs Hillary nomination fight from 2008. She’s clearly a democrat but doesn’t like Obama. Perhaps Hillary should be on the trail more to convince these unlikely voters.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 5:16 am | Permalink
  2. il-08 wrote:

    Voting should be mandatory, as it is in many western European nations. If it was, the republican party as we know it would cease to exist.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  3. Jeff wrote:

    @ IL-08 that would force the GOP to adopt an anti-voting stance. They would probably say that it infringes on the rights of Americans to participate in the political process, and that mandating election participation is the equivalent of a government takeover of the electoral process. Can you imagine the backlash from folks like Beck and his brainless minions?

    The fact that the majority of unregistered or uninvolved voters would go for Obama just proves that Obama’s campaign to get more people registered and involved in the process is a major boon for his chances at re-election. Like in 2008, his focus on a group that normally doesn’t vote is what shot him so far ahead of McCain. In that election, it was the youth vote. In this election, he’s going to have to go after a different group.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  4. Dan wrote:

    I’ve been reading 538 since before it joined the NY Times. I haven’t found a better site in predicting the outcome of elections. In ’08 he missed only on Indiana. 538 is almost as good as political irony.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    Dan, you make me blush. Nate Silver is a genius.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  6. il-08 wrote:

    Then why can’t he predict a World Series???? HA!

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael wrote:

    “Voting should be mandatory, as it is in many western European nations.” Not true. The European country with compulsory voting enforced is Luxembourg.

    Compulsory voting in the U.S. is just not a good idea. As a practical matter, the sheer size of our populace (exceeded only by China and India), combined with the nature of state government, make it infeasible. From a philosophical perspective, the choice to abstain from voting is a legitimate form of expression that should be protected. Even a “none of the above” option fails to capture this expression, which may be a statement about the electoral system itself, rather than the candidates. Compulsory voting, in essence, forces individuals to express (indirectly in the form of a ballot) a view they may not wish to.

    More to the point, do you really think compulsory voting will somehow make things better? Every single person that I know who tries to be well-informed and cares about politics already votes. Compulsory voting will not magically turn an apathetic person into an informed citizen. All it will do is force people to pick a name at random. Statistically, these random choices are likely to be evenly distributed (at least between the major candidates), which just produces an artificially inflated view of vote counts.

    The major problems, in my view, with voting are the winner-takes-all system (including the electoral college) and gerrymandered districts. Granting states’ electoral votes proportionally would significantly help. Imagine how much enthusiasm would be added to Obama supporters in Texas or California Romney fans if their candidate had a chance of taking a big chunk of votes from those states. Or, what if all Representatives were picked in an at-large fashion? Do you really think someone as insane as Bachmann would be in the House if she had to appeal to the majority of MN voters?

    I also like the idea of systems like instant-runoff or exhaustive ballot, which require the candidate to have an absolute majority. One of the biggest problems for third parties is the fear factor. Alternative, multi-round systems make it less likely that casting a Green vote ends up being an advantage for Republicans.

    There are many things that could improve voting participation here. Compulsory voting is, in my view, pretty low on the list, though.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    Michael, I’m not sure where IL-08 came up with the “western European” thing, but in Europe, it includes Greece and Turkey. France has compulsory voting, but there is no penalty if you don’t vote. Australia has compulsory voting. In Latin America, most countries have compulsory voting. See

    I disagree with your claim that “random choices are likely to be evenly distributed” because it directly contradicts the survey results in my original post.

    I do agree that there are other things that could help. In addition to proportional electoral votes and instant-runoff, I’d like to see voting moved to a non-work day (either make it a Saturday, or make voting day a holiday).

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  9. il-08 wrote:

    I lived in France and Belgium for a long time, my wife is Belgian and she is under the impression that she will be fined if she does not vote, even though she lives in IL-08 now. She’ll be happy to know she won’t get fined for not voting, but the point is that she feels the requirement to vote regardless of enforcement.

    The ‘practical matter’ argument is not very convincing. What if 90% of the populace decided to vote one election, would we not permit them? Our system is set up to handle 50% of the eligible voters because historically we get a 50% turnout, not the other way around.

    I agree that not voting in itself can be a valid political statement, but is that the reason 50% of the populace doesn’t vote, to make an informed statement? Don’t think so. I really would prefer a ‘none of the above’ category.

    Finally, being a cup half full kinda guy, maybe, just maybe it would get people more involved with understanding the political process and political positions. There would always be some coin flip voters, but in general I would like to think that mandatory voting would increase the public’s awareness of issues and policy.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Michael wrote:

    IK, I had looked at the same page. When I was writing my post, I was looking at the [apparently incomplete] list under “Present Day” (about halfway down). So mea culpa on Turkey (and somewhat on Greece, though it is also listed as “not enforced”), which apparently does still enforce its law. However, neither Belgium nor France currently enforce their laws. So, with the exception just noted, my original statement was correct: The [only] European countries with compulsory voting enforced are Luxembourg, Turkey, and possibly Greece (though the extent of enforcement in Greece is debatable).

    I disagree with your disagreement about random choices being evenly distributed. I think you’re trying to extrapolate too much from a single survey. For one thing, only about 60% favored either Obama or Romney. So it is fair to suggest that the remaining 40% would be closer to a uniform distribution. Furthermore, I meant my comment about uniform distribution to apply beyond just the presidential race. Considering 39% of the unlikely voters couldn’t even name the VP, it seems very unlikely that they could articulate the policy differences of Ron Wyden, Bart Stupak, and Rand Paul.

    Regarding the Obama-Romney numbers, the survey begs the question of why 43% expressed a preference for Obama. I doubt it’s because they understand the importance of picking the soon-to-be-retiring SCOTUS justices or because they don’t believe in the Confidence Fairy (h/t to Krugman). For one thing, incumbents always have an advantage; better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Challengers must convince people not just that the incumbent has been horrible, but also that he/she can do better. That’s a tough task. Since 1900, 10 incumbent presidents have won re-election while 3 have lost. In all 3 cases, the successor (FDR, Reagan, and Clinton) went on to become incredibly popular.

    Furthermore, there seems to be some factor [black] that has been mentioned before [black] that gives Obama [black] a higher profile [black] than previous [black] presidents [black]. Just as his race plays a factor in racists voting against him, it also contributes to many people voting for him, because he IS different than the stodgy white guy stereotype. And he just exudes cool. Obama’s persona, his life story, his unique place in history…all of that make the Obama-Romney survey somewhat of an outlier. Would we have seen a 2-to-1 preference for Kerry or Gore over Bush? I really don’t think so.

    So, I will buy the survey’s assertion that unlikely voters would give Obama a big boost. However, I am very skeptical of applying the same results to ANY other political campaign, and I still believe that the general result would be a mostly uniform distribution between the major parties.

    IL-08, my “practical matter” point was about enforcement, not allowing people to vote. The larger the data set (i.e., the size of the population), the more errors there will be in correctly counting who voted and who didn’t. That makes it very difficult to have a penalty attached. And without penalties…I just don’t see compulsory voting in name only making any difference here. I would love to see a 90% turnout, and believe that every polling place should be equipped to handle such demand, regardless of current participation rates.

    I agree with you that most who don’t vote are making an informed statement. (The fact that 39% of poll respondents couldn’t identify Biden really casts doubt on the idea of them being “informed” about anything.) However, the fact that some may view it as a form of protest raises the possibility of a First Amendment challenge.

    Again, I see compulsory voting as infeasible and generally ineffective, and think that there are better ways to solve the problem.

    Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink