McDonald: Does Enthusiasm Portend High Turnout in 2010?

04/08/2010 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This guest contribution comes from Michael McDonald, an Associate Professor of Government and Politics in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As Nate
Silver notes
, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds that
that 62% of registered voters say they are "more enthusiastic than usual about voting"
in the upcoming midterm elections.

Nate focuses his attention on differential enthusiasm
between Democrats and Republicans.
Republicans appear more enthusiastic than Democrats, but enthusiasm
among partisans of both stripes are at record levels in Gallup polling for a
midterm election. I'd like to focus on a different question. What does this level of
enthusiasm potentially tell us about voter participation in the 2010 November

This level of enthusiasm at 62% is indeed the highest level
of enthusiasm among registered voters in a midterm election since Gallup began
asking this question in October, 1994. The next highest level was recorded at
49% in a June, 2006 poll, a difference of 13 percentage points.


USA Today notes that this is "a
level of engagement found during some presidential election years but never
before in a midterm. " Indeed, this is the case. Looking back at the same
question asked in presidential elections since 1996, enthusiasm peaked at 69%
in June, 2004 and again at 69% in October, 2008. At a similar point in
February, 2008, 63% of registered voters said they were more enthusiastic than
usual about voting in that election.


The enthusiasm question appears to tap into underlying
voting propensities. Voter
turnout rates among those eligible to vote
has been relatively stable in
the 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006 midterm elections, as has the self-reported
enthusiasm measure. In presidential elections, enthusiasm appears to be related
to voter participation. Turnout rates have increased from a low point in 1996
to progressively higher levels in 2000, 2004, and 2008, along with the
enthusiasm measure.


If this high enthusiasm for congressional elections
translates into similar voter turnout rates as recent presidential elections,
this would be exceedingly rare. In the course of
U.S. history
, midterm turnout rates only exceeded presidential turnout
rates at the time of the country's Founding, when Congress was the preeminent
branch of government and when presidential elections were occasionally not
contested or presidential electors were still occasionally selected by state
governments. Over the past century, midterm turnout rates have been on average
about 15 percentage points lower than contemporaneous presidential elections. History
tells us that it is unlikely that the 2010 midterm turnout rate will equal
recent presidential turnout rates of 60%+ of those eligible to vote.

Still, absent any knowledge about enthusiasm, we might
expect that turnout rates would increase in 2010. The long term pattern has
been for midterm election turnout rates to generally move with presidential
elections. An increase in presidential turnout rates has occurred recently
without a breakout to the upside for the midterm rates. Looking back to the
1960's, just by looking at the aggregate election data alone we might expect
midterm turnout rates to rise near 50% in 2010.

Further tamping expectations down is that level of
enthusiasm of 39% in the October 2000 survey is on par with the 41% in October,
1998 and the 41% in October, 2002, yet the turnout rate in that presidential
election was still approximately 15 percentage points higher than either of
these midterm elections. Indeed,
the lowest level of enthusiasm of 17% was registered on the October, 1996
survey. The 1996 presidential turnout rate of 51.7% is a modern low, but it
still easily exceeds any recent midterm election.

This disconnect may have something to do with the question
wording. The question asked is, "Compared to previous elections, are you more
enthusiastic than usual about voting, or less enthusiastic?" Note that the
question elicits a respondent to refer back to previous elections as a
comparison point. It may be that respondents are thinking about comparable midterm
or presidential elections when answering the question, rather than a baseline
enthusiasm that may be compared across different types of elections.

There is one
further caveat to consider. The presidential data shows that it is possible
that this enthusiasm may swiftly wane. In 2008, voters' enthusiasm in the
primaries faded by summer, dropping from 63% in February to 48% in June, before
peaking again at 69% in October as the election neared. The enthusiasm observed
at this point in time may be a product of circumstances that may not be
sustainable until November. Then again, even if enthusiasm wilts in the summer
this does not mean it may not perk up again as November draws near.

At this point, the most reasonable conclusion to draw from
the totality of the evidence is that turnout in 2010 will most likely exceed
the 41.4% of 2006, and if these current conditions hold the turnout rate may
come in just shy of 50%.