Did Romney lose on turnout? And other 2012 inside the numbers questions

I made a comment in my previous post that it was hard to imagine the 2012 turnout was much less than the 2008 turnout.  Votes are still being counted, but at this point it looks as though the turnout was lower than in 2008 by about 8 or 8.5%, which is pretty substantial.  Columnists are beginning to note that about 7 million fewer white voters voted in 2012, and, since Mitt Romney won white voters by a healthy margin, it stands to reason that he may have lost in failing to turn out his base.  This seems especially so given the surprising fact that John McCain earned more votes than Mitt Romney.

I quickly developed a theory about this and set to work tabulating turnouts state-by-state.  I used politico.com’s 2012 election map in creating my data set, and relied on Wikipedia for the 2008 totals.  This methodology underestimates the 2012 totals for two reasons: 1) not all of the vote is counted in all states, and 2) Politico reports only the top 3 third-party vote-getters.  These two sources of error should be relatively small.  This enabled me to answer my main question and also investigate some other interesting features of the 2012 electorate.

Did Romney lose on turnout?  (Probably not.)

My original guess about the 2012 turnout was based on the long lines I was seeing in my home state (Florida).  This, coupled with the expectation of a close race, the unprecedented media coverage of the election, and the increasingly sophisticated ground games of the two major parties made me think we would have a high turnout (near or better than 2008).  When I heard that that was not the case, I developed a new theory:  since the electorate is becoming increasingly educated about the fact that only the “battleground states” matter, perhaps turnout was low this year in uncontested states but still high in battleground states like Florida.

I generated the following map of the United States based on the change in turnout from 2008 to 2012.

2012 vs. 2008 turnout (estimate)

2012 vs. 2008 turnout (as of November 8, not enough data for Washington)

The map is color-coded, with states in green showing turnout equivalent or better than 2008 (because some ballots remain to be counted, I set a threshold at less than 1% drop from 2008 as “high turnout”; most of the green states are already increases though over 2008).  As you can see, almost all of the green states are battleground states.  The closest 12 states (identified by the absolute value of the difference in percent of votes for President Obama minus the percent of votes for Governor Romney) are as follows:

State 2012 EV Vote Diff % change turnout (2012 vs. 2008)
Florida 29 0.6% -0.9%
Ohio 18 1.9% -6.5%
North Carolina 15 2.2% 4.4%
Virginia 13 3.1% -0.7%
Colorado 9 4.6% 5.6%
Pennsylvania 20 5.1% -6.9%
Iowa 6 5.7% 1.3%
N. Hampshire 4 5.8% -1.4%
Nevada 6 6.6% 4.5%
Wisconsin 10 6.7% 2.4%
Minnesota 10 7.6% 0.1%
Georgia 16 8.0% -2.0%

As you can see, every closely-contested state had good turnouts, considering that nationwide turnout dropped 8-8.5%.  Turnouts increased substantially in North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin.  The only other green states in the map above that were not closely-contested were Massachusetts (+1.5%), which had a high-profile Senate race, North Dakota (+0.7%) and Delaware (+0.4%) which were electing both a Senator and a Governor, and Louisiana (+1.4%), whose strong turnout is somewhat of a mystery.

Turnout may have been a real factor for Governor Romney in Ohio and Pennsylvania, whose numbers dropped less than the national average, but undoubtedly enough to create a problem in those states.  Obviously, the President won several states for which turnout was good (indeed, most of the green states went Democrat), but the Republicans clearly believed that the enthusiasm factor would help them steal some states in the upper Midwest.  My only point here is to challenge the theory that a failure to generate enthusiasm or to “get out the white vote” was not the cause of his loss.  In fact, I argue that Romney and Ryan were not the cause at all – but rather that Republicans have deeper problems that transcend getting the “right” candidate or driving enough enthusiasm in their “base”.  I would hate to see Republicans lose a chance to learn from this election by chasing bad theories.

A final note about the turnouts.  On the map above, states colored red indicate huge drops in turnout.  The closest-contested of these states was Arizona (Romney won by 11.2%), and all of these states were a long way from being close.  Other than New York, whose turnout may have been affected by Hurricane Sandy, all of these states are also on the West Coast, suggesting that early returns in the battleground states may have suppressed turnout.  Most importantly, turnout dropped 31.5% in California and 19.4% in New York relative to 2008.  These states are so populous that together they account for half of the total turnout differential between 2008 and 2012!  (Caveat: not all of the precincts in storm-ravaged areas of New York are in.)  Now unless you want to argue that what Romney was lacking was all of the votes John McCain got in New York and California, the idea that enthusiasm or turnout cost Romney the election is pretty remote.  (Had the election come down to Ohio, that argument could certainly be made.)  As for the one high-population Republican-leaning state, Texas’s turnout only dropped 1.5% from 2008.

How did the third parties do? (Not very well.)

If you really follow these elections closely, you could probably guess where third parties got the highest percentage of the vote – New Mexico (4%).  New Mexico is the home state of the strongest third party candidate, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson.  He was governor there.  Other places where third parties did relatively well were low-population states with a tradition of independent-mindedness (Alaska, 3.5%; Maine, 3.2%; Montana, 2.9%).  Of the contested states (the 12 states on the table above), Nevada had the highest third-party showing at 2%.  For the 3 closest states, third-party showings were low (Florida, 0.7%; Ohio, 1.4%; North Carolina, 1%).  Margins were thin enough in Florida and Ohio that you might argue they made a difference in the outcome, but such an argument would be a real stretch.

Did close contests go Democrat? (Yes – which is bad news and good news for Republicans)

As can be seen from the table above, 12 states were decided by 8 percentage points or less.  Of those 12 states, 10 went for President Obama (as did 12 of the closest 15).  On one hand this is bad news for Republicans – they lost all of the states that counted most.  On the other hand, this also means that only 3 states that Republicans won (North Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri) require a vigorous defense.  Most Republican states are safe states, whereas in this election, several Democrat “safe states” looked unsafe for the first time in awhile – of the 15 closest states, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan now look like states that Democrats will have to protect, and that Republicans can scrutinize for strategic openings.

Just for fun, here are the states where the spread between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was at least 25 percentage points (electoral votes also shown):

Maryland 10 25.2%
New York 29 26.8%
West Virginia 5 26.8%
Rhode Island 4 27.9%
Idaho 4 32.0%
Oklahoma 7 33.5%
Vermont 3 35.8%
Wyoming 3 41.3%
Hawaii 4 42.7%
Utah 6 48.1%
D.C. 3 84.2%

A pretty even split for Democrats and Republicans, though Maryland and New York have the most electoral votes.  Republicans may want to figure out why West Virginia, a staunch Romney backer, nonetheless elected a Democrat to the Senate and to the Governor’s house in 2012.


One comment

  1. […] a previous blog post, I took on the McCain beats Romney theory and pointed out that while turnout was down nationwide by about 8 percent, turnout in most of the […]

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