Voter Turnout in the Past Decade

Tori Carr

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American president-elect of the United States of America. He profoundly defeated John McCain, the Republican candidate, by winning 365 electoral votes of the necessary 270 while McCain only earned 173 votes from the electoral college. Obama also won the popular vote with 66,862,039 votes, according to The New York Times. Eight years later, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate and our current president, won the 2016 election with 306 electoral votes, also according to The New York Times. However, Donald Trump did, in fact, not win the popular vote; he earned 45.9% of the vote while Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate won 48.0% of the popular vote. To understand this shift in voter turnout and how this will affect the 2020 election, it is crucial and imperative to understand how turnout reflects change in America elections.

The 2020 election is expected to have the highest turnout in the past century, according to The New York Times. This prediction stems from turnout in the 2018 midterm election, which was the highest it has been since 1914, according to US News. Michael McDonald, a political science professor for the University of Florida and elections expert, predicts around 65%-66% of eligible voters will cast a vote. The last time turnout was that high was in 1908 with a 65.7% voter turnout. 

It is not clear whether this spike in voter turnout will benefit one party more than the other. Commonly Democrats benefit “from higher turnout because young and nonwhite and low-income voters [who] are overrepresented among nonvoters,” according to the New York Times. However, in 2016, Trump benefited from strong support from blue-collar, white voters with little education. These supporters are likely to stay home, but with their support for Trump their turnout may increase and hurt the Democrats in imperative battleground states. 

The 2018 elections may foreshadow the outcome of the 2020 election. Republicans who were registered to vote were more likely to vote than registered Democrats. Yet, Democrats had two new advantages: low turnout from white people without a college degree which led to an increase in young college educated white people. This increase is a direct result of the anti-Trump movement, which urged people to vote against the president. According to the New York Times, “The advantage was largest among those 18 to 24: The president’s approval rating was 28 percent for voters in that group, and 45 percent among those who stayed home.”

How has these changes affected our school over the decade? Mr. Garikes expresses, “I think some students are highly involved with everything else that they have to do. They’re following the news. They’re concerned. They have strong opinions. I think some students reflect a lot of Americans that they don’t put much of a priority on it. As a government teacher, I wish more students were highly involved. I think one of the most cherished things we have as American are the ability to be involved, the ability to vote, to vote intelligently.” 

History Department Chair Ms. Hardwick believes that a much smaller portion of students keep with elections and politics in general. She explains, “I don’t think they’re involved. I think that there’s a group; there’s always gonna be a couple of people who are very involved and very passionate. I think they’re more involved than they were if we’re talking about change over the decade. There’s definitely more involvement and more caring. And yet, at the same time, there’s a bit of exhaustion particularly with everything’s that been going on just this year.”


In 2008, Obama’s campaign was based around an overwhelming need for change. He thought that American voters were unsatisfied with the Bush administration because of “the nature of politics in Washington.” Obama also campaigned to stray away from excessive lobbying which Obama claimed called for a post partisan proposal with an emphasis on the public good, according to an article by ICPSR: Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. As a result, McCain worked to create his own image separate and slightly more progressive than President Bush’s by continually disagreeing with his statements, but he was hesitant to chastise the incumbent too much in fear of losing his far-right Republican supporters. McCain similarly strived to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans by choosing Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential candidate. He did so because she appealed to younger voters and was known for working well with Democrats during her time as Governor of Alaska. McCain used this strategy to appeal to both liberal and conservative voters to receive as many votes as possible; therefore, producing a high voter turnout.  

According to Politico, 136.6 million Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election with a 61.6% voter turnout rate. Obama was able to pull ahead of McCain to become the first black president, and Joe Biden became the first Roman Catholic vice president. Obama won the presidential election because white voters made up a smaller percentage of overall voters and young people and minorities tended to support Obama. 95% of black voters, 66% of Latino voters, and two thirds of voters 18 to 29 voted for Obama, according to Politico

The New York Times stated, “the historic gap between black and white voter participation rates over all virtually evaporated,” and that younger African Americans voted “in greater proportions than whites for the first time.” Furthermore, the percentage of black women who voted was greater than any other race or gender. Two million more African Americans, two million more Latinos, and 600,000 more Asians voted in 2008 compared to 2004; however, white non-Hispanic voters showed no obvious change. To contrast, the rate of white voters decreased by one point and the rate of black, Latino, and Asian voters surged by four points. In states such as Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Maryland, South Carolina, and Ohio, more than 70% of black eligible voters voted, according to the New York Times. 

Ms. Hardwick explained that it is vital for politicians to weigh in demographics when campaigning. She stated, “I think that there’s a lot less of reaching out to other demographics, [in the past decade], or other groups that you want to get on your side. There’s been more of a focus on your own target. As opposed to appealing to more people.” 

Mr Garikes echoes a similar ideal, “You have to recognize that the demographics of the country are always changing, so whether it’s the promise of the millenials as they grow into more a powerful building block, and the decline of the boomers. Trying to engage younger people, and recognizing that the face of America changed and continues to change [as to] what the demographic is. So you have to be aware of that, and recognize those concerns.” 

In the 2008 election, the majority of voters were 45-64 years old and supported McCain. Where younger voters were more likely to vote for Obama; 66% of voters 18-29 voted for Obama while only 45% of voters 65 and older voted for Obama. As for income, most people made $100,00 or more, and this group was equally split between Obama and McCain. However, a low-income voter was more likely to vote for Obama: 73% of people making less than $15,000 voted for Obama, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

In January of 2009, a poll, taken by Gallup News, found that Obama had a 68% approval rating in the beginning of his presidency. According to ICPSR, at the end of President Obama’s first term, he had an approval rating of 46% due to the public dissatisfaction with a shaky economic recovery after the 2008 recession and the Affordable Care Act. Unemployment was estimated to be 8.3%, and it seemed as though Obama may have a difficult time being reelected. 

Mitt Romney became the candidate for the Republican party in the 2012 election; however, he was judged by fellow Republicans because they thought that Romney “failed to generate widespread enthusiasm among Republican voters,” according to ICPSR. To resist being labelled this way, he entered the election as a strong conservative which may have drawn away many moderate voters. Likewise, he was a leading business man who was known for getting success by putting common people out of a job which caused him to lose support among blue collar workers, and he was judged by many Republicans for supporting a health care bill when he was governor of Massachusetts similar to Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The election of 2012 had an overall voter turnout rate of 58.2%, according to the Huffington Post, which is lower than the 2008 election voter turnout which stood at 61.6%. Michael P. MacDonald, Associate Professor at the University of Florida, writing for the Huffington Post explained that “Perhaps a turnout decline is to be expected for successfully reelected presidents.” 

According to Brookings, “the Census Bureau’s report trumpeted the historically noteworthy finding that black turnout rates in 2012 exceeded that of whites for the first time.” The white vote dropped reasonably and the Latino and Asian vote had a slight decrease. These statistics could reflect the continued interest in black voters of a black president, but also the lack of interest in white voters in other candidates. 

In the 2012 election, the minority eligible voters had drastically increased, according to Brookings, and turnout rates for the black community skyrocketed in this election. Eligible black voters who actually voted had been on the rise since 2004 with 60.0%, then in 2008 with 64.7%, and in 2012 with 66.2%. However, the white eligible voters who voted had been declining. In 2004, 67.2% voted, in 2008 66.1% voted, and in 2012 only 64.1% of voters voted. For the first time black voters had a higher turnout rate than white voters. Additionally, democratic vote margins have been historically high with 87% of black voters in 2012 voting for the Democratic candidate. This was a slight decline from 91% in 2008. White voters had a -20% democratic vote margin in 2012 which was lower the the margin in 2004 and 2008. According to Brookings, “Thus it might be said that the high minority and low white turnout rates of 2012 were responsible for Obama taking the national vote, irrespective of the changing demography of the electorate.” This change in the demography of the electorate is not fully seen until the 2016 election. 

President Obama was again elected to be president in the 2012 election. He had won 17 out of the top 20 states with the highest voter turnout rates; Romney was able to win North Carolina. Montana, and Missouri, according to the Washington Post. Voter turnout declined in every state, except for Iowa, where it stayed the same, and Utah, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Washington D.C. where voter turnout increased since 2008. 

Election day registration can be key to a higher voter turnout. Nine states in the United States allow election day registration, and seven of those nine were states in the top 20 states with highest overall turnout which included Minnesota. Swing states are also pivotal to elections, and most have higher voter turnout. However, Nevada is an outlier due to it being a swing state, but placing in the bottom 15 in overall turnout. California, Texas, and New York are in the bottom 15 states as well even though they are the most populous states, according to The Washington Post

On April 12, 2015, Hillary Clinton announced her bid for the 2016 presidential election, and just two months later, on June 16, Donald Trump announced his candidacy. Both candidates were highly controversial and unliked by American voters due to numerous scandals. 

President Trump won the 2016 election with 304 electoral votes; however Trump was unable to win the majority compared to Clinton, according to Pew Research Center. Percent of eligible voters who voted in the 2016 election was 55.4% according to CNN. 70% of voters were white, and of those voters 57% voted for Donald Trump, according to the Roper Center. 12% of voters were black and 11% were Latino with the majority of both minorities voting for Clinton. Age had an obvious contribution to the election as well, the majority of voters were 45-64 years old and of those voters 52% voted for Trump. The younger voters were more likely to vote for Clinton, and it seemed that the middle class with an income of $50,000-$100,000 made up only 30% of the voted, but the majority voted for Trump. Voters who earned less than $50,000 a year tended to vote for Clinton, and the voters who have an income of $100,000 and over were basically split on Clinton and Trump. 

Mr. Garikes, expressed his opinion on how the electoral college has affected past elections. He said, “I think people are really gonna focus on the importance of the electoral college in a way that they might not have since the 2000 election. The 2016 election shows us in big numbers that Hillary Clinton got three and a half million more votes than the president, but the president won. I think that people are well aware that these states are really important, and that getting people out to vote in these swing states are gonna be critical because it well could be that President Trump could be reelected and lose the popular vote by even more votes than he lost four years ago.”

Nonfit Group, a group that supports voter turnout, explained that states with the highest overall turnout were either battle ground states or permitted election day registration. According to the Hill, “More than 70 percent of voters turned out in Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado and Wisconsin, all states where both presidential campaigns invested heavily.” These factors come into play in influencing presidential candidates where they should spend the majority of their time and money. 57% of the candidate’s campaign stops between July 19, 2016 and November 7, 2016 were in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Likewise, 71% of their money was spent in the four states mentioned. According to the Hill, only 5% of “5 percent of the campaign stops made by the two candidates and 1 percent of the total spending were in nonbattleground states.”

According to Brookings, the percent of white voters in the 2012 election dropped only from 73.7% to 73.3% in 2016. However, in 2016 only 68.9% of eligible voters were white because the share of eligible voters has been becoming increasingly diverse for years. This election was monumental because it was “the first time in more than a decade, the black share of voters declined, compared to the previous election—from 12.9 percent in 2012 to only 11.9 percent in 2016. This occurred despite a small rise in eligible black American voters,” according to Brookings. It is thought that Trump was able to win because of the setup of the Electoral college, and six key states (North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Floria, Ohio, and Michigan) were how Trump was able to win the electoral vote needed to become President. Latino and black turnout decreased in every one of these states aside from Pennsylvania, and there was a decrease in overall minority turnout in 33 states. 

This change in politics has changed how involved people are in elections in the past, which affects their want to show up to polls and vote. This greatly affects voter turnout. Ms. Hardwick expresses the sentiment, “I contribute more. It’s hard because I’m from D.C., so I do get the sense that my vote doesn’t matter in the same way, and so it’s hard to care. But I’ve tried to find ways that I could participate more and be more active. My action has increased.”