With the midterms only days away we are hearing with greater frequency that the election will be decided by turnout. This is an enduring political cliché that I have heard in reference to every American election I can remember. It has been around for so long because it is both obviously true-all elections are decided by who votes-but also somehow makes the speaker sound informed. It is a perfect response to a question about a race in a district or state that you have not been following. Moreover, many partisan pundits, observers and activists repeat this line not as an attempt at political analysis, but as a way to mobilize voters. In all elections getting supporters to the polls is critical, so repeating the importance of turnout can be impactful.
There are drawbacks, both analytical and political, to the frequent repetition of the turnout platitude. The most glaring analytical problem is that it is tautological. Saying an election will be decided by which party gets more of their voters to turn out is essentially saying that whoever gets the most votes will win. This is true, but somewhat short of groundbreaking insight. Nonetheless, the turnout sound bite has some elements that are relevant; the ability to mobilize loyal party members who rarely vote-low income African Americans for the Democrats and rural white men for the Republican is indeed a key factor in many races. However, voter suppression laws and voting rights in general are also part of the turnout question. For Democrats, mobilizing older and low income African Americans and Latinos in many states is not just about encouraging them to vote, but also about making sure they are allowed to vote once they get to the polls. To ignore this when discussing turnout is disingenuous.
The turnout assertion is also intellectually lazy and, if believed, unhelpful for democracy. Focusing too much on turnout suggests that nothing else is important. If everything comes down to turnout, then there is no need to probe issues, look at why some voters are undecided or even to campaign outside of a party’s political base.
Clichés aside, the midterm election is about much more than turnout. It is a clash between two parties with very different messages. The Democratic message is that Trump is an embarrassment and threat to our democracy and that allowing the Republicans to maintain control of Congress for the next two years would give him a free hand to make healthcare more expensive, gut environmental regulations and cause domestic and international havoc. The Republicans have countered with an argument that Trump has turned the economy around and that empowering left-leaning Democrats will threaten the growth and job creation that the Republicans have provided. Not all Americans know which argument is more compelling. Many see elements of truth in both, while other Americans are focusing on important local issues as they head to the polls. Those kinds of voters may decide to stay home, but it is more likely they have recently made up their minds or will do so in the next few days based on issues and candidates. That is normal and healthy in a democracy.
The turnout narrative marginalizes those voters, all but suggesting they don’t exist. Turnout campaigns mean that candidates only talk to committed supporters, thus contributing to the echo chambers that have helped increase political and cultural polarization in America This is bad for American democracy because it disincentivizes dialog and debate between citizens. After all, why bother trying to persuade somebody to support your candidate or party if it is only about turnout. The absence of this dialog and debate, particularly during an election, means that we have given up on trying to talk reason to each other. The campaigns themselves know that the election is not about turnout and continue to try to persuade voters, making it puzzling why pundits insist on repeating this idea about turnout being the only thing that matters and, in doing so, sending a clear message to listeners and readers that trying to change the mind of a fellow citizen would be fruitless.
Most pundits who proclaim that it will all come down to turnout do not intend to limit political discourse or suggest that there is no point in trying to change anybody’s mind. It is more likely that they have run out of things to say about an election that has been relentlessly analyzed for the better part of two years. Despite this, when Americans hear the turnout mantra every day, it leads us to believe it, and all it implies, is true.
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