Why turnout matters, even in true-blue districts: Large margins of victory make politicians more responsive to progressive goals

A new study shows that turnout affects how Democratic politicians vote on issues

Published May 29, 2016 6:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

Though in the popular imagination a revolutionary is a bearded Che Guevara with a cigar, a more accurate picture might be a union organizer registering immigrant households. A new study shows that turnout affects how Democratic politicians vote, which strengthens the case that turnout matters.

Rain And Representation

The study, by political scientists John Henderson and John Brooks, is focused on the question of how politicians use election outcomes to gauge voter opinion. The authors exploit a natural experiment that is frequently used to study voting behavior: rain on or shortly before election day. They find, “In examining House races from 1956 to 2008, we find each additional inch of rain (above average) decreases Democratic vote-margins by 1.4 to 2.0 percentage points.” This is in line with previous research suggesting that rain harms the Democratic party.

The argument of Brooks and Henderson is important, because they find no effect on re-election chances: “we intriguingly find that election rain does not have a direct effect on incumbent reelection for either Democrats or Republicans.” This suggests that studies examining the impacts of voter turnout that focus solely on election outcomes miss other implications of higher turnout (an argument I have made in both my report, and previous pieces).

Instead, they find instead that Democratic politicians use the information of their vote margin to adjust their votes: a loss in vote share leads Democrats to vote in a more conservative way than they would have otherwise. They find, “a 2.5% Democratic loss results in an average 12.8 switches per incumbent.” A study by political scientists Thad Kousser, Jeffrey B. Lewis and Seth Masket finds that after a 2003 recall election in California recalled the Democratic governor, Democratic assembly members shifted their votes to the left. Previous research by political scientists Daniel Butler and David Nickerson suggests that when legislators are given accurate information about their constituents preferences, they are more likely to vote in line with those preferences.

It’s important to note that it’s difficult to disentangle the information effect from the turnout effect. It could be that representatives are gaining information about their constituents or it could be that higher turnout and thus larger vote share leads representatives to feel that they can move left.  Either way, the core finding - that a loss in vote share causes Democratic politicians to be more conservative - has important implications.

The Disconnecting Link

However, the new study also suggests a worrying disconnect. The authors find that the link between vote margin and subsequent roll call voting has weakened over time (see panel b, of the chart below).


There are several possible explanations. First, a study of Senators by political scientist Michael Barber finds that Senators are more responsive to donors than voters, though they become slightly more responsive  It could be that the increasing power of donors has weakened the link between legislators and their constituents. Increasing polarization might also be reducing the link, by strengthening the incentives to vote on ideological lines. As panel a of the chart above shows, ideologically extreme representatives are less sensitive to vote share. Finally, the rising number of uncompetitive districts could also weaken the link between vote share and responsiveness, since the authors find that representatives in non-competitive districts are less likely to shift votes in response to an election.

Interestingly, the authors also find that “Democrats are responsive to win-margins, while Republicans are not.”  This aligns with the research of political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins, who show that, “the Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests.” That is, Democrats respond to the preferences of their voters, as well as other interest groups, while Republicans tend to stick to their guns, even when their voters signal different preferences.

Progressives Should Pray For Sunny Days, And Then Start Organizing

As more states adopt automatic voter registration, many cynics will argue that registration won’t boost turnout, but recent research suggests that pre-registration for young people increases turnout and that many of the newly registered people in Oregon (the first state to implement automatic voter registration) are voting. Others will argue (correctly) that even massive increases in turnout won’t flip many elections. But Henderson and Brooks show that higher turnout can still matter: just changing vote shares is enough to shift how politicians behave. As I’ve argued repeatedly, higher turnout could shift change the American political landscape by shifting the constraints under which politicians make policy. A study of ten OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries by Jonas Pontusson and David Rueda find that, “Left parties will respond to an increase in inequality only when low-income voters are politically mobilized.” As Matt Grossmann tells me, “Democrats nearly always fear the electoral consequences of moving too far left, whereas Republicans tend not to view ideological conservatism and electability as a trade-off.” Thus, higher turnout would signal to Democratic politicians that they have space to move to the left.

It’s worth noting that while marginal voters (i.e. those that enter and leave the electorate) are more left-leaning than core voters (who vote in every election), they are also more likely to be anti-incumbent. In addition, the differences between core voters and marginal voters depends on the district, as well as mobilization. This study doesn’t suggest that merely increasing turnout will automatically bring about more progressive policy (if Republicans were more successful at mobilizing marginal voters, they could diminish vote share), but rather that there is a link between vote share and policy. If higher turnout only shifted the partisan control of a few districts, but bringing in more voters of color, young people and low-income people into the electorate, it could change the electoral incentives of politicians in a more progressive direction.  Progressives should pray for sunny days, and then start organizing.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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