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Turnout, political science and popular debate

- January 13, 2009

“Michael McDonald”:http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol6/iss4/art4/ provides an entertaining bit of snark in his overview of the 2008 turnout figures.

The 2008 presidential election poses a challenge to voting scholars. The myth of declining turnout rates has been laid to rest, and participation has been increasing for three consecutive presidential elections, contrary to a large number of theories advanced to explain the myth. Unless I have missed something, membership in bowling leagues is not surging; ESPN, the Food Network, and the SciFi Channel are not broadcasting political news; political commercials remain negative; citizen trust in government remains low; income inequality is increasing; and turnout among those apathetic baby boomers and Gen-Xers is rising along with all other age categories.

I dunno that he’s right about the Sci-Fi channel (in my opinion, _Battlestar Galactica_ did a better job of covering the GWOT than large chunks of the mainstream media during 2005-2006)[1] but his point still stands. There are a lot of theories out there that explain declining voter turnout in secular terms, pointing to large scale changes in media and society as the culprit. These claims look to be at best of limited explanatory power, and at worst fundamentally problematic, given that voter turnout is rising again while none of these trends has reversed. As McDonald suggests, parties’ voter mobilization efforts and (perhaps) early voting and other measures aimed at making voting easier are far more plausible explanatory factors.

But this begs a question: if voting decline can’t be traced back to declining social capital, falling television news consumption etc, why does a miniature industrial complex of semi-popular books, magazine articles and op-eds say otherwise? Here, I’m not blaming the research underlying some of these claims (which seems, as best as I can tell, competent on its own terms), so much as the willingness of the commentariat to take up and distort and simplify these claims about how rampant individualism, dumb youth etc are undermining the Republic. As McDonald points out, we have good evidence from Gerber and Green _inter alia_ that certain party GOTV tools can make a demonstrable difference, and we also know that these results are feeding back into the strategies of political professionals.[2] But I’m not seeing Gerber and Green’s arguments getting extensive play in _The Atlantic Monthly_ etc. The tentative lesson I draw is that political science research is most likely to be taken up into broader social debates when it plays to contemporary anxieties and neuroses, and least likely to be taken u when it tells us something about actual politics. But I’m likely being over-cynical here (and am certainly happy to hear about alternative views and countervailing evidence).

fn1. McDonald himself later notes that “there are thousands of obvious birth-date errors on voter registration files, such that if the dates are to be believed people are traveling from the future to change the course of history or are over a thousand years old.” But if McDonald is wrong and these records are _factually correct_, who’s going to report it _except_ the Sci-Fi Channel???

fn2. My thanks to a commenter on an earlier post for pointing out in a mildly snarky fashion that I was seriously underestimating the extent to which this was the case.