It is an article of faith for the activist base of both political parties: An ideologically pure candidate can win by turning out the base and mobilizing a new coalition of voters.
For Democrats, nonvoters have long been a source of hope. They are disproportionately young, nonwhite and low-income, demographics that favor the party. In this year’s Democratic primary, turning nonvoters into voters would seem to offer a path to victory for candidates who might seek to win the general election without persuading the moderate swing voters coveted by their party’s establishment.
There may be places in the country where this is true. But in the battleground states likeliest to decide the presidency, nonvoters aren’t overwhelmingly favorable to Democrats, according to an analysis of 623 registered voters who live in battleground states and stayed home in both 2016 and 2018.
These nonvoters participated in recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College surveys of the six closest states carried by the president.
They lean Democratic, but only by a bit. The president actually leads Elizabeth Warren, 42 percent to 41 percent, among active registered voters who did not vote in either 2016 or 2018. Joe Biden leads this group by three points, and Bernie Sanders leads by four.
Those nonvoters who say that, if they voted, they would vote for any of the three leading Democratic candidates seem no more likely to support progressive causes or a progressive nominee than recent voters. Just 13 percent of nonvoters who would vote for the Democratic nominee call themselves “very liberal.” Nearly as many of these Democratic-leaning nonvoters, 8 percent, say they’re “very conservative.”
The results suggest that higher turnout, though helpful to Democrats in their quest to defeat the president, would not necessarily assure them of victory in these states. And the president’s ability to stay close among nonvoters suggests he could remain competitive in a high-turnout election and expand his support beyond his 63 million voters in 2016.
The findings undermine the common assumption that Hillary Clinton lost simply because of low Democratic turnout. This month’s Times/Siena polling does suggest she would have benefited from a higher overall turnout; the top Democratic candidates today lead among 2016 nonvoters by between three and eight points. But the relatively narrow Democratic advantage is consistent with a wide body of evidence that the election would have remained deadlocked, even if Democrats had enjoyed a turnout as favorable as the one they had in 2012.
For Democrats, part of the problem is that the demographics of nonvoters no longer work so clearly in their favor. Nonvoters are less likely to have graduated from a four-year college, and the president excels among the less educated white voters who are overrepresented among nonvoters in the battleground states.
But the Democratic challenge runs beyond demographics. In general, the nonvoters are less ideological and less partisan than demographically similar voters, which weakens the expected Democratic demographic edge.
The president, for instance, has a 17 percent approval rating among self-identified Democrats who didn’t vote in either 2016 or 2018, compared with an 8 percent approval rating among Democrats who did vote in either of those years. And Mr. Trump has a 19 percent disapproval rating among self-identified Republicans who didn’t vote in either 2016 or 2018, and a 9 percent disapproval rating among those who did.
The same pattern plays out by demographic group. The most striking case involves black voters: Those who turn out vote all but unanimously for Democrats, but the Democratic advantage is not quite so clear among those who haven’t voted in recent elections.
Mr. Biden leads Mr. Trump among nonvoting black registered voters by only 59 percent to 19 percent, but he is ahead, 89-5, among those who voted in both 2016 and 2018. The sample of black nonvoters is small, at just 72 respondents, but the difference is well outside the margin of error. Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders underperform among nonvoting black registered voters by a similar level.
What about whites without a degree, the president’s base? Mr. Trump has a 25-point lead over Mr. Biden in this group if they have voted in one of the last two elections, 59 percent to 34 percent. Those who stayed home, however, back Mr. Trump by a smaller margin of 53 percent to 36 percent. The pattern holds after controlling for age.
Taken together, the figures imply that a large portion of nonvoters sit out because they do not neatly line up with either party. This fact tends to limit the opportunity available to both parties, but over all it tends to diminish the Democratic advantage that would seem to exist based on their demographics alone.
One exception to this general pattern is among Hispanic nonvoters, who tend to be just as Democratic as their voting counterparts, or even more so.
Over all, Mr. Biden led among nonvoting Latinos, 64 percent to 24 percent, compared with a 63-30 lead among those who had voted in either 2018 or 2016. The sample of nonvoting Hispanic voters is fairly small, but the finding is consistent with data previously analyzed by The Upshot.
As a result, Democrats enjoyed a far larger edge among nonvoters in our poll of Arizona, where 33 percent of registered nonvoters were Hispanic, than elsewhere in the battlegrounds. Mr. Biden led among nonvoters in Arizona, 55 percent to 37 percent, thanks to a 74-12 lead among Hispanic in that group. In the rest of the battlegrounds, Mr. Biden had only a one-point lead among nonvoters.
The relative Democratic strength among Hispanic voters may also mean that nonvoters nationwide may be more Democratic than nonvoters in the battlegrounds, since nonvoters nationwide are likelier to be Hispanic. It may add further intrigue to speculation about Democratic prospects in Texas, where nonvoters are even more diverse than they are in Arizona.
Of course, Democrats — or Republicans and the president — could benefit from higher turnout if it drew disproportionately from their pool of voters. The Times/Siena data confirms this has happened before.
The group of voters who stayed home in 2012 and turned out for the presidential election in 2016 was fairly favorable to Republicans. Today, they back Mr. Trump by three points over Mr. Biden.
The voters who stayed home in 2016, but turned out for the midterms in 2018, back Mr. Biden by 17 points in these battleground states. Today, they are just as likely to say they are “almost certain” to vote as those who turned out in 2016.
So for Democrats in the primary, the question is not simply who leads among nonvoters, but what kind of candidate could excite them enough to lure them to the polls.
The results do not offer particularly clear guidance here. On the issues, the nonvoting Democrats look about the same as those who vote. But the group looks relatively likely to include voters who have not been animated by the cultural fights of the last half decade, which might be something of a surprise given their relative youth.
Nonvoters are the likeliest group of Democratic leaners to oppose an assault weapons ban or to support reducing legal immigration to the United States. They’re likeliest to agree that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, even though the group is only 50 percent white. They’re also likeliest to agree that political correctness has gone too far.
It’s a combination that informs why this group is somewhat sympathetic to the president, even though they say they would probably vote for the Democratic nominee.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: If they did care about the same things that animated “very liberal” voters, they probably would have gone to the polls in these crucial states. Eighty-six percent of very liberal registered voters turned out in either 2016 or 2018 in these states, the highest percentage of any ideological group.
That said, there are some signs that Democratic-leaning nonvoters are somewhat likelier to favor a bold candidate who offers something different. In no small part because of their relative youth, they say they would prefer a candidate who promises fundamental, systematic change to American society over one who promises to return Washington to normal. In contrast, Democratic-leaning voters who turned out in both 2016 and 2018 prefer a return to normal.
Young nonvoting Democrats are slightly more likely than young voting Democrats to support fundamental, systematic change over a return to normal. But in keeping with the broader pattern, they offer more conservative answers on the issues than those who vote.
The gap is particularly stark on cultural questions. Among people under 30 who lean Democratic, the nonvoters are far more likely than the voters to agree that the women who are running for president “just aren’t that likable.”
The pattern also extends to issues like immigration or health care. Over all, the young Democratic nonvoters are far less likely to describe themselves as very liberal.
From all this, you could stitch together a case that Democrats have struggled to appeal to less educated nonvoters, particularly among those who are young and black. These nonvoters do not like the president and they are not conservatives, but they do not appear to have been socialized into the cultural norms of the party’s liberal college-educated coastal base. As a result, they have not responded to the president’s conduct with the urgency and outrage of their peers. And some of them may even dissent from their generation’s progressive consensus on cultural issues.
When it comes to the candidates, Mr. Sanders shows relative strength among nonvoters: He has a 41 percent “very favorable” rating in the group, compared with 33 percent for Mr. Biden and 30 percent for Ms. Warren. This is at least in part because of Mr. Sanders’s longtime appeal to young voters.
Not only is Mr. Sanders’s favorability rating the best of these three candidates, but he is also the only Democrat whose favorability rating is stronger among nonvoting Democratic leaners than among those who have voted before. His outsider status and promise of fundamental change, without much focus on cultural issues, might offer at least one clue for how Democrats might appeal to these nonvoters, though it need not be the only one.
Although Mr. Sanders’s favorability rating is strong in both absolute and relative terms, it is not an overwhelming endorsement.
Democrats also have an opportunity to draw on a different group of nonvoters: the millions who aren’t registered to vote at all, and who stand on the sidelines of American politics.
Their views are not measured here, but a prior Upshot compilation of 2018 polls from the Pew Research Center and Kaiser Family Foundation found similar patterns. President Trump’s approval rating among unregistered black voters, for instance, stood at 19 percent, and at a surprising 47 percent among unregistered young voters.
None of this precludes the Democrats from benefiting greatly from new voters, as they did in 2018.
But the poll offers little reason to think these voters are poised to save them. Over all, 45 percent of nonvoting Trump supporters say they are “almost certain” to vote, compared with 46 percent of nonvoting Democratic leaners.
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