What would happen if the nearly 100 million Americans who have not voted in recent elections suddenly turned up at the polls?
Among politicians and political professionals of both parties, the prevailing theory is that Democrats would be the beneficiaries.
After Barack Obama succeeded in boosting turnout among historically disenfranchised groups in 2008, Republican-controlled state governments pursued voter suppression tactics. Though some studies argue the effects are modest, voter ID laws, “exact match” registration, and purges of registration lists reduce turnout among African-Americans, Latinos, and newer voters.
Responding to those who say he is too radical, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., argues that his “democratic revolution” can attract new voters. His decisive victory last Saturday in the Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses was based on “a multiracial coalition of immigrants, college students, Latina mothers, younger black voters, white liberals and even some moderates.”
However, a new study of non-voters conducted by the Knight Foundation casts doubt on the conventional wisdom.
Defining a non-voter as a citizen who did not vote in the last six presidential or midterm election years, going back to 2008, the Knight investigation surveyed 4,000 citizens nationally and 8,000 in ten swing states, including Pennsylvania.
The survey found that as of early this year, non-voters split almost evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates. If all non-voters turned out, 33% would support a Democrat for president, 30% favored President Trump, and 18% preferred third-party options.
Among the ten swing states, Pennsylvania non-voters showed the greatest support for Trump, favoring the president over Democratic candidates, 36-28%.
If the Knight study is true, then campaign strategists need to go back to the drawing board.
In some respects, Knight and previous studies agree on the profile of the non-voter. Non-voters trust government less and believe that their votes would not make a difference. Compared to frequent voters, they tend to be nonwhite, poor, and less educated and informed.
On the other hand, a 2014 analysis discovered that non-voters were more pro-government than were voters, favoring redistributive policies and a strong safety net. If non-voters perceive differences between candidates on economic policy, they will turn out for the more liberal candidate. In most elections, they see Democrats and Republicans as alike.
Dislike of the presidential candidates or campaign issues in 2016 was higher than that of candidates and issues in the four preceding presidential elections, according to a Pew analysis of U.S. Census survey data.
Nevertheless, if all non-voters had voted in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be president now.
Leading up to this year’s national elections, it appears President Donald Trump made inroads among non-voters. Though there are more Democrats than Republicans among those who did not vote in the last two national elections, the views of non-voters are more conservative on cultural issues than those of regular Democratic voters.
According to a New York Times/Siena College poll taken last November, non-voters who lean Democratic were more likely to favor reducing legal immigration, oppose an assault weapons ban, and agree that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks.”
The good news for Sanders is that younger, non-voting Democrats are more likely than young Democratic voters to favor fundamental, systematic change rather than returning Washington D.C. to normal.
This means that both parties will need to be more strategic in deciding whether to expand or constrict the vote. The Knight study identified six types of non-voters, each with different partisan propensities.
In Pennsylvania, the tables have turned.
Historically, Republicans have opposed efforts to increase voter turnout. A GOP-enacted voter-ID law attempted to restrict access before it was found unconstitutional in 2014.
However, both Republicans and Democrats saw advantages last fall in increasing voter participation. An election reform bill, enacted by the Republican Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, permits voting by mail without an excuse and shortens the deadline for voter registration from 30 days before the election to 15 days.
As a result, Republicans may attract more non-voters from the white working class, and Democrats might increase turnout among persons of color and 18-24 year-olds.
All signs point to a modern-era turnout record.
Voter enthusiasm is high in both parties, and a potential Trump-Sanders matchup would provide voters with a choice between two visions of fundamental change.
In an election where relatively few are undecided about whether Trump deserves four more years as president, the party that recruits the most new voters may have the winning edge.