Two Questions About Turnout: 1. Are Voters Apathetic This Year? 2. Do LSU Home Games Hurt Turnout
This past Sunday the state’s chief election official, Secretary of State Tom Schedler, predicted that turnout in the Louisiana gubernatorial primary would fall below 50% of registered voters. Political watchers offered a now familiar interpretation oft-repeated in recent weeks: Voters are sitting this election out. There are several other points of evidence that voters are not engaged in the election: Only about two in five are following the campaign, significant numbers still report being undecided in recent polls, and early voting is down 10% from a year ago. This is “a strange one,” we’re told, the year of the disengaged electorate.
But is it? When you step back and look at the numbers, it is not at all clear that we are facing anything unusual this year. Voters may be sleepwalking though the campaign, but not to any greater or lesser extent than typical.
About Those Undecided “Voters”...
Let’s start with the polls that show high numbers of undecided voters. Many of the undecided “voters” in polls taken late in the campaign don’t bother to vote, so this is a pretty good metric for gauging voter engagement.
Alarm bells went off last week when KPLC released a poll conducted by Raycom Media showing a whopping 37% of voters are still undecided. Yikes! That’s a lot of folks who are not likely to end up casting a vote. Before we get carried away, however, it’s worth noting that this figure appears to be an outlier. Most publicly available polls taken over the past few weeks peg the share of undecided voters somewhere in the upper teens or low twenties.
Perhaps that sounds too high to satisfy our civic obligations, but it is not at all unusual. Looking over the past five gubernatorial campaigns, from 1995 to 2011, the average share of undecided voters in polls taken during the final month before the primary is 24.1%. Even when looking just at 1995 and 2003, competitive open-seat contests, the average share of undecided voters are 26.8% and 23.6% respectively.
The polls may not show a highly energized electorate, but they are no more disengaged this year than what has been typical in Louisiana gubernatorial elections over the past two decades.
...And Those Early Voters
What about early voting? It’s down 10% this year compared to last year’s election. Does this mean voters are going to stay home? Maybe. This year’s governor’s race is getting less national attention and involvement than last year’s US Senate race. Based on that alone I would expect turnout to be lower. But it isn’t the early voting data that tells me that.
There is simply not enough data available (or at least not that I could find quickly on the Secretary of State’s website) to test whether or not election-to-election trends in early voting predict election-to-election trends in overall turnout. A casual glance, however, suggests that drops in early voting do not necessarily mean drops in overall turnout. In 2011, the Secretary of State announced a 20% increase in early voting from the previous governor’s election, but overall turnout between those two elections dropped by about 250,000 votes, a 19% decrease from 2007.
When It Comes to Turnout, How Low is Low?
Secretary Schedler predicts turnout for the primary will come in around 47% or 48%. This seems like a reasonable forecast to me. Having less than half of voters show up may not be satisfying, but it is not at all unusual.
Comparisons to 2012, when turnout topped 67% of registered voters, or to any other presidential election, are not adequate. Across the United States, turnout peaks in presidential elections. The better comparison is to statewide elections for governor or U.S. Senate that do not coincide with presidential elections.
Consider this list that ranks statewide turnout across all 13 governor and U.S. Senate elections in Louisiana since 1998 (as far back as there is data on the Secretary of State’s website):
1. 2008 US Senate: 67.2
2. 2004 US Senate: 66.9%
3. 2014 US Senate Primary: 51.5%
4. 2003 Governor Runoff: 50.9%
5. 2003 Governor Primary: 50.4%
6. 1999 Governor Primary: 48.8%
7. 2007 Governor Primary: 46.6%
8. 2002 US Senate Primary: 45.2%
9. 2010 US Senate Primary: 44.2%
10. 2002 US Senate Runoff: 44.0%
11. 2014 US Senate Runoff: 43.6%
12. 2011 Governor Primary: 37.4%
13. 1998 US Senate Primary: 36.9%
Unsurprisingly, the two elections held at the same time as a presidential contest top the list. Even if we end up with turnout at 47%, the bottom end of the Secretary of State’s predicted range, this year's election would fall just above the middle of the pack. If we drop presidential election years, turnout of 47% would come in fifth on the list. If we look just at governor’s elections, 47% comes right in the middle again.
If 47% turnout is a mark of apathy, then that is not at all new to the electorate this year. It certainly is not “strange”.
To be fair, the difference between 47% turnout and 50% turnout amounts to many thousands of votes. If we think democracy should be participatory, then any potential voter who stays at home means we could do better as a society.
This is where I think the confusion comes in: We’re mixing up our comparisons. I think all our wailing and gnashing of teeth over this year’s apathetic electorate is because engagement is lower than what pundits, policy wonks, and the press (and me) feel it should be. Given the stakes in this year’s election – the opportunity to elect a new administration that will face immense policy challenges – we can hardly be blamed for thinking engagement should be high.
The problem is that the conversation has been misleading, implying something special is derailing voters from their civic duty this year. But, believing voter engagement is lower than what we think it should be this year is not sufficient to claim that voter engagement this year is lower than usual. In fact, it does not look at all unusual.
Do LSU Home Games Hurt Turnout?
If you’ve found what I’ve written so far depressing, then let’s change gears and talk football. Saturday is Homecoming in Tiger Stadium. I’ll be there. I have friends, Hilltopper alumni, coming in town for the game. It will be my six year old daughter’s second game. She's excited about the band and about number 7 (and about the nachos and ice cream). Just one problem… I've got to make it to the polling place sometime before heading to campus in order to vote.
I recently heard a longtime follower of Louisiana politics say, “Twenty-five, 35 years ago, there was a saying in Louisiana: There are only two sports -- LSU football and politics.” What happens when those two sports collide?
For years, I have heard that Louisiana’s penchant for Saturday elections risks putting the exercise of our chief civic duty in direct conflict with LSU football if ever a home game should fall on Election Day.
Since 1998, only two statewide elections for governor or U.S. Senate have fallen on the same day as a LSU home game: The 2007 gubernatorial primary (the same day this happened) and the 2011 gubernatorial primary.
LSU had road games on the day of the 1999 primary and the 2003 runoff, and was on a bye week on the day of the 2003 primary. (By the way, we had governor’s elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011, and LSU played for a national title in…2003, 2007, and 2011. This year is a governor’s race too…just sayin’.)
The remaining statewide races since 1998 were held either on a Tuesday (federal Election Day) or after LSU’s regular season. (We have held two runoff elections for U.S. Senate on the same day as the SEC Championship Game, but unfortunately the Tigers did not make it that far in 2002 or 2014.)
To get the cleanest test, I focus on turnout in East Baton Rouge Parish (EBR), where any effect of LSU football games would be the most likely to occur. Setting aside the two statewide elections held in conjunction with a presidential contest (the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Senate primary elections), I compare the two elections with LSU home games to the remaining nine without home games. Indeed, there is a difference. On average, turnout in statewide races among EBR voters is 8.9 percentage points lower when LSU has a home game.
But, there’s a problem here. The 2007 and 2011 governor elections are different from these other elections for another reason. Neither 2007 nor 2011 was particularly competitive. In both, Bobby Jindal was the clear front runner. So, maybe what looks like a LSU home game effect is really just a coincidence. Maybe lower turnout in those elections resulted from the lack of competition. (A significant body of political science research indicates that less competitive elections with larger margins of victory have lower turnout.)
That is exactly what is going on here. The figure below plots turnout in EBR (vertical axis) against a measure of electoral competition (horizontal axis) for all eleven elections. The competitiveness measure is equal to the difference in vote share between the top two candidates in runoffs or primaries that did not lead to runoffs. For primaries that resulted in a runoff, the vote margin is the gap between the two candidates closest to each other among the top three candidates in the primary. Higher values, mean bigger wins and less competitive elections.
The downward sloping line shows the relationship between competitiveness and turnout. On average, less competitive elections (with large vote margins between candidates) have lower turnout.
The elections held on the day of a LSU home game are shown in purple (of course). After accounting for the lack of competition in those two elections, there is no evidence that home games systematically depress turnout. Turnout in 2011 comes in a bit lower than what we would expect based only on competitiveness, but the 2007 election comes in higher.
So, enjoy the game Saturday… but don’t expect to use it as an excuse for not voting!