THE BLOG
12/03/2008 04:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turnout: Who Predicted 140 Million?

Was turnout really less than the expert's expected? Perhaps, but not as much as implied by Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla under the headline, "Obama Won Without Voter-Turnout Surge Experts Had Predicted" (emphasis added):

President-elect Barack Obama bet on an unprecedented surge of new voters to carry him to victory last month. He won without the record turnout.

About 130 million Americans voted, up from 122 million four years ago. Still, turnout fell short of the 140 million voters many experts had forecast. With a little more than 61 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, the 2008 results also didn't match the record 63.8 percent turnout rate that helped propel President John F. Kennedy to victory in 1960.

When I read this yesterday, I wondered: Who are the "many experts" that forecast a turnout of 140 million? I turned to Google and Nexis. So far, I can't find any.

Google the words "140 million" and turnout and you will find links to a number of stories claiming, in various formulations, that unnamed "experts" or "officials" were expecting a turnout "could approach a record 130 million to 140 million." Of course, if that is what the "experts" claimed, they were right. The final, certified count of the national popular vote looks to be at least 130 million, as Przybyla reports, and more likely closer to the 131 million that George Mason University's Michael McDonald now estimates (based on a combination of "final or certified county level election results within states that have not recently updated their state level reporting").

But I still can't find the "many experts" who "forecast" a turnout of a 140 million. The two true experts who get quoted most often on the subject are McDonald (who, full disclosure, is also a friend and an occasional commenter on Pollster.com) and Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

In an op-ed published by Politico in late September, McDonald speculated about turnout:

The impending presidential election may be the election of a century. Record primary voting, floods of new registrations, more small campaign donors and highly rated political conventions show that people are intensely interested.

These indicators augur a high turnout. Undoubtedly, more people will vote than the 60 percent who turned out four years ago, which was the highest rate since 1968. The question is, how many more? If participation tops the 1960 level of 64 percent, then we must go all the way back to 1908 -- literally a century of American politics -- to find the next highest rate: 66 percent.

All McDonald confidently "predicts" here is a turnout of at least 60 percent. He was right about that.

Just before the election, however, in an article by the the Boston Globe's Brian Mooney, McDonald ups the ante a bit:

McDonald projects that 64 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots this year, exceeding the most recent high of 63.8 percent in 1960, the John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon contest. Four years ago, turnout was 60.1 percent of eligible voters. Prior to 1960, the previous high was 65.7 percent in 1908, McDonald said. In that election, before women could vote, William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan.

With about 213 million Americans eligible to vote this year, a 64 percent turnout would mean about 136 million votes cast in the presidential race, compared with a 60 percent turnout of eligible voters in 2004 and 123 million votes cast that year, according to McDonald's United States Elections Project website.

So yes, McDonald's final prediction, at least as reported by Mooney, was a bit high [but see McDonald's comments in the update below]. Still, 136 million, though certainly a bigger number than 131 million, is not quite 140 million.

Curtis Gans may have been the one who first floated "140 million" figure, although not because he was predicting that level of turnout. An early October post on the Chicago Tribune Swamp blog reports Gans skepticism of a looming record turnout:

So will the general election turnout reach the historic volume that has been foreshadowed?

Unlikely, says Gans.

1960's turnout -- 67 percent of eligible voters -- is the figure to beat, and would require nearly 140 million Americans to cast a ballot, he says in the report. To put that in perspective, 122 million people headed to the polls, meaning that turnout would have to increase by 18 million voters to break the record.

Obviously, Gans did not expect a turnout of 140 million. A Roll Call editorial that appeared just before the election (found via Nexis) was more specific about Gans' prediction:

It would take turnout of 140 million to match the all-time record of 65 percent in 1960, according to Curtis Gans, director of the American University Center for the Study of the American Electorate, whose guess is that 2008 will come in at 61 percent to 63 percent.

It is worth noting that Gans and McDonald compute turnout percentages differently, and may have come to different conclusions about what number of voters it would have taken to match the turnout from 1960. Gans calculates turnout using an estimate of the voting age population (VAP) in the denominator. McDonald prefers to use his the voting eligible population (VEP) his own estimate on the number of adults eligible to vote (more details here).

Either way, the bottom line is that the predictions from both Gans and McDonald were reasonably close to each other and to the actual result. More important for this topic, neither predicted a turnout of 140 million.

So who did? Is there any basis for the claim of a "forecast" by "many experts" of a 140 million turnout?

Update - Michael McDonald emails with more:

I tried to place caveats in all my
discussions with reporters that a 63.8% turnout rate was a possibility, not a
certainty. I spoke with hundreds of reporters, so I fault myself for not being clearer
to Brian Mooney from the Boston Globe that the word "will" should
properly be "might." Indeed, as the election neared, I speculated to
many reporters that the increasingly likely Obama victory might actually depress
turnout from what we might otherwise see if the election outcome was uncertain.
 We will have to look into this more deeply in the months ahead, but it
stands to reason that less enthusiastic Republicans would be disproportionately
affected by an likely impending Obama victory, leading to fewer Republicans
willing to volunteer for McCain, a less effective ground game for his campaign,
and ultimately lower turnout among Republicans that would lower the overall
national turnout rate.

One final word: not only will we most
likely exceed 131 million votes for president, the total number of votes cast
including blank and spoiled ballots will exceed 132 million. An aspect of the
election that we will have to ponder is the aftermath is the 500,000 to 750,000
mail-in ballots that were rejected.

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