More on State Competition and Turnout

I expanded on my last post regarding state competitiveness/turnout over at Decision Desk HQ. Specifically, I considered targeted GOTV efforts and campaign resource allocation as another variable that could spur change in state turnout–rather than just state competitiveness.

Fun fact: I volunteered for DDHQ during New Hampshire’s three elections (state/national, primary/general) during 2016 and reported precinct results for the township of Hanover. For the February primary, we were the first–at the very least, faster than the Associated Press–to report a surprising Hanover result that spoke to the emerging class divide (among whites) in the 2016 Democratic primary. I highly recommend following Decision Desk HQ on future election nights and for interesting commentary in the meantime.

There were a few interesting tidbits from my analysis that didn’t make in any of my past blog posts. They revolve around some of the themes I touched on in the DDHQ blog: 1) how competition–or perception of it–affects turnout, and 2) tensions between the Electoral College, a popular vote system, and voter participation.


For closeness in a state, I used the margin between the actual vote shares of Clinton and Trump on Election Day. While they may sense the competitiveness that these margins reflect, people don’t know these results ahead of their decision to turn out or not. What they can observe in advance is indications from polls about the state of a race. Below, I consider this possibility by using state polling margins in the final two weeks of the campaign instead of actual vote margins as the independent variable on the x-axis:


Comparing this figure with the first one from my last blog post makes it clear polling competitiveness was less correlated with turnout than actual state results were. While correlation using closeness in actual results was -0.52, using closeness in pre-election polling margins was weaker here at -0.31. That could stem from the fact that state level polling had serious error in many cases, and thus the actual results better reflect competitiveness even if they occurred after people made their turnout decision.


The question of whether feeling your vote matters motivates you to turn out to vote more underlied a lot of this analysis. Part of this question also probes whether the Electoral College disincentivizes people from voting with respect to a hypothetical popular vote system in which citizens would view their vote as more valuable. But what if the vote in states already properly reflects the voting preferences of all people in that state, and not just those of voters? In other words, if everyone considered their vote valuable and consequently turned out, there’s a chance state results wouldn’t change much anyways if actual votes already represent the preferences of the entire state well. To get at this new question, I collected data on percentage identification with the major parties in each state (2014 data) to proxy the political composition of all people in a state. The absolute difference in these percentages indicates if a state is closely split among Democratic and Republican lines (a smaller absolute value) or is decidely partisan in a particular direction (a larger value). This metric goes on the x-axis on the below plot, while the margin between actual major party vote shares in the 2016 election goes on the y-axis:


Do the state electoral compositions produced by the Electoral College reflect the actual political environment in that state–either split or one-sided between Democrats and Republicans? They generally do so well, but not perfectly–the correlation coefficient between the two plotted variables is 0.45.

The next question that naturally follows this lack of a perfect relationship is whether–relative to the partisan balance among all adults in a state–voting results produced by the current system advantages one party more than the other. I attempt to express this for each state with the below chart. To measure the difference between political balance of voters and all adults, I use the following formula:

  • (Clinton % vote – Trump % vote) – (Democratic % identification – Republican % identification)

If the political leanings of voters exactly matched the political leanings of all adults in a state, then the point representing the state would have a value of zero and fall on the black vertical line in the graph. The further left of the line a state is, the more Republican it is among voters than all adults; the further right a state is, the more Democrat it is among voters than all adults.


The pattern is very clear: actual voting results largely overrepresent the Republican lean of all adults in a state. In 42 states, voters/voting results are more Republican than are all adults/leanings of all adults. Thus, in a scenario in which everyone in a state voted, Democrats would benefit much more than Republicans would. This also means that the current system in place–that produces voting results used here–avails Republicans most. Given that all adults are more Democratic than voters only at the national level, a result like this shouldn’t prove too surprising, but does lay bare just how much Republicans benefit from how many and which voters turn out.

More on State Competition and Turnout

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