September 12, 2016

Crossover voters transform elections: Their turnout and impact, 1972 to 2012

An earlier post discussed the false assumptions of the "monster vote" model, which expects tens of millions of Republican voters who haven't voted in a long time or ever. That put into question whether or not 2016 can be a landslide election.

But are infrequent voters the only source of a landslide? I decided to look into the composition of the electorate going back as far as the data allows, 1972, to see who the crucial groups were in the landslide elections. The data come from the national probability sample in the General Social Survey, which allows us to study the voting behavior of the same person across two elections.

Infrequent voters have not mattered except in close elections, and often their effect goes against the landslide winner. But we'll get to those infrequent voters in another post.

The group that has the largest effect of up-ending the status quo is not an underground army of infrequent voters who swoop in like a deus ex machina, but frequent voters who decide to change sides from who they voted for last time. Although we do live in polarized partisan times, it's a mistake to dismiss the effect of those who do not simply vote for the same party every single time.

The graph below shows what percent of the electorate were crossover voters. First they have to have voted in the previous election, and then they have to have voted for a different party in the current election. Only Democrats and Republicans are counted.

There is a clear decline over time in the willingness to switch your party -- a sign of the well-attested rise in partisanship since the 1980s. About 20% of all voters in 1980 were crossovers, and it's become hard to break 15% since then.

Still, there is a clear cycle around that trend, roughly showing when the voters wanted to dump the incumbent and change the guard. Usually when there's a new party, the voters give it a chance and don't cross over so much when it's up for re-election. When the party has had two terms, then they'll cross over again and change which party is in office.

Ousting a one-term party shows up in the consecutive rise in crossovers from 1976 to 1980. First they wanted to be done with the Nixon administration, crossing over to elect Carter. But then he turned out to be a terrible replacement, so they crossed over even more in 1980 to elect Reagan.

Conversely, voters were fine with the Republicans staying in power during the '80s and crossed over less and less.

Although Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, the spike in crossover voters may show how he won back the Electoral College, through converting many voters who voted for Clinton in the South and Appalachia.

The cycle sure looks like it's about to swing back up again in 2016, as the non-partisans seem to have had enough of the Obama years, especially when they would have to choose Crooked Hillary as their third-term Democrat President. If this year is operating under the same constraints as there have been since the polarizing '80s, the crossover vote will be between 10-15% of the electorate, probably on the higher side. Without the non-partisan climate that prevailed before the '80s, we probably won't see 20% or higher.

How great of an effect have the crossovers had? In other words, how would the election have turned out if you were only allowed to vote for the same party as last time -- and if you wanted to cross over, you stayed home?

That scenario, where only partisans vote, is shown by the blue boxes in the graph below (positive values show a win for the Democrat, negative values a win for the Republican). By allowing people to cross over, as well as stick with the same party, the outcome is shown in orange. These are the outcomes among frequent voters only, but the infrequent voters have not decided any election other than 1992.

Of the 11 elections, 3 have been transformed from one party winning to the other -- shown by the blue and the orange results lying on opposite sides of the axis -- one was reduced from a solid win to a tie, and another tipped from a tie to a solid win.

In 1976, voters who went Nixon-Ford were a lot more common than those who went McGovern-Carter, not only because there weren't many McGovern voters to begin with, but because it was a more natural fit to vote for Nixon and his VP, whereas McGovern was a leftist and Carter a deregulating born-again Southerner. However, his non-leftist stance allowed Carter to draw a large number of former Nixon voters. Given the high rate of crossovers (from the first graph), it was enough to change the outcome from a win for Ford among partisans, to a narrow win for Carter overall.

In 1980, the partisan race was won by Carter because it was more natural to vote Carter twice than to vote Ford and then Reagan, who were from very different wings of the Republican Party (liberal/moderate vs. conservative), and who had faced off in the primaries of the previous election. However, the widespread disappointment with the Democrat -- "Anybody But Carter" -- led to a surge in crossover voting (first graph). That was enough to change the overall election toward Reagan's victory.

These are the famous Reagan Democrats, and that is what won him the election, and in a landslide -- not voters who had not shown up in earlier elections.

In 2000, partisan Democrats outnumbered partisan Republicans because there was positive momentum for the Democrats (who did win the popular vote a third time in a row), and because Gore was Clinton's VP -- a natural progression to follow. But Bush drew a large number of former Clinton voters, primarily in states with counties in Appalachia and in the lower Mississippi region. Perhaps they felt like eight years in the White House had turned Gore into an elitist Eastern liberal (despite hailing from Tennessee), while Bush had a more folksy Southern-ish appeal.

Only by reclaiming these Clinton voters from the Greater South did Bush manage to turn around the Electoral College.

In 1992, a similar dynamic played out as in '76. Among partisans, it was natural to go Bush-Bush than it was to switch from a typical Northeastern liberal like Dukakis to a Southern pro-business moderate like Clinton. Not to mention there were many more Bush '88 voters than Dukakis '88 voters. This gave Bush a decisive win among the partisans. However, like Carter, Clinton appealed to Republicans who were Southern, socially and culturally moderate or conservative, and who wanted a more pro-business than tax-and-spend economic approach.

This enormous crossover appeal allowed him to declare a draw among frequent voters. The infrequent voters would then decide it narrowly in his favor in the popular vote. The regional nature of his crossover appeal made it so that he won more handily in the EC by picking off states in the Greater South.

In 2008, the dynamic was the opposite, with the partisan race more or less tied. Going Bush-McCain was natural as both were neo-cons, Kerry-Obama was too since both were Anybody But Neo-cons, and the size of Bush and Kerry voters were similar the last time. What made this election such a blowout was the crossover from Bush '04 to Obama '08. If you voted in both elections and chose Bush in '04, you had a 25% chance of defecting to Obama, and among Obama voters, Bush '04 voters made up 25% of his coalition (these don't have to be the same number).

Why didn't the Bush voters who defected to Obama choose Kerry in the first place? They might not have thought the Iraq War, the housing bubble, and so on, had been going so badly by '04. But with another four years of neo-con disaster, they could no longer in good conscience vote for McCain and went with Obama by default.

They are the weakest element of his coalition, and will mostly be voting Trump this time -- they wanted a Republican who was against neo-conservatism and Wall Street bailouts, and settled for Obama. And they are a very large chunk of the Obama coalition, at 25%, meaning their return to the Republican Party will be a profound disruption to the so-called "blue wall" of safe Democrat states, even if "only" a majority and not all of them migrate back to red.

The countervailing movement will be the tiny handful of hardcore neo-cons who will defect to Clinton, who never met a war she didn't like, and the somewhat larger number of Joe Scarborough yuppies who feel like supporting a populist would kill their attempts to climb higher up the status pyramid.

But it is clear from polls that the crossover votes heavily favor Trump -- around 15% of Obama voters support Trump, compared to 7% of Romney voters supporting Clinton. And Obama voters outnumber Romney voters, meaning Trump's larger percentage is drawn from a larger population too.

This election will not be decided by an outpouring of folks who rarely vote, but by those who have voted recently and are tired of where the Obama administration has taken things -- particularly those back East, outside of the Sun Belt where all the trendy people have been moving to. In the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, and New England, masses of left-behind voters are up for a change of pace, even a radical one. Things have been going the wrong way for so long, that's what it's going to take.

GSS variables: presYY (year), voteYY (year)


  1. Andrea Mitchell, in the gentlest terms, reminded Hillary and her cabal to not be so damn obvious and cavalier with their stock and glib dismissals of critics. She said that the campaign not being straight about health issues before the 9/11 ceremony (I know, it's not like they were afterwards either) is giving momentum to "conspiracy theories" about Clinton.

    They're really, really concerned right now. Scared, even. The corpse of Clinton is getting harder and harder to thrust into people's faces without provoking a bad reaction. The WaPo also had a "to whom it may concern" cautionary article.

    Camp Hillary is moving from elation (first woman president,most powerful fag hag ever, the country is blue forever) to horror.

  2. I saw an interesting comment on Sailer's blog about attitudes toward the media changing as much as, or more than, the media itself.

    "Whatever happend to left-wing critiques of television? I remember in the 80s, people on the left were always talking about the pernicious influence of television. There were books like Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an influential book when it came out in 1985. Then there were all the “Kill Your Television” bumper-stickers, and the endless critiques of “If it bleeds, it leads” local news broadcasts. Don Henley got in on it with his song Dirty Laundry.

    But nowadays, polite, middle-brow liberal opinion seems to think that TV is just swell. NPR, Slate, Huffington, etc. are always going on about the latest shows – Game of Thrones, Mad Men, etc. Tuning into Dallas every week made you a square and a philistine, but binge-watching Mad Men, and caring about the character arc of Don Draper makes you a hip sophisticate.

    Now that TV reflects their opinions 24/7, liberals just love TV, and any notion that it might be a corrosive influence on society has been seemingly discarded."

    What he's getting at is the striving/culture war's influence. Elites and wannabe elites are intensely concerned with media and pop culture sending the "right" messages. In other words, people like me are awesome, other kinds of people are unclean.

    Ya know how smiling used to be so common. Like, just check out the LP's at a thrift store. Lots of friendly faces on 70's records (like this Journey back cover picture: which in our angsty age can come off as naive and cheesy.

    Then in the 80's, things started to tense up. People became a lot more judgemental. Including towards other people's tastes. I heard a Gen X-er say that he never listened to Nirvana "because I don't listen to popular bands". Lighten up. You're never gonna be as cool as the Boomers because your dated culture war jeremiads are a drag on our spirits. As my (1960 born Mom) would say, "you need to expand your horizons".

    And Gen X-ers need to get over fetishizing black clothes (the color black is associated with elitism), which are going to become a dated product of the 80's-2010's.

    As for me going easy on the Boomers, yes, they've made a lot of mistakes. Just the same, they at least got to taste the pre-striving era. A lot of 'em are sick and tired of post 1980 trends and wish that we could go back to a time where you could relax and savor the truly great things in life. Enough of the hyper-activity and conflict of the culture war era.

    A '64 born gal at my work said that she and her husband went to a retro-rock festival in Minnesota over the weekend. Bands like Dokken, Night Ranger, etc. These Boomer groups are still entertaining audiences with agreeable music. Why do (sometimes born after 1970) people still groove on this stuff? Maybe 'cuz Boomer rock has been the only way to maintain some kind of connection to the pre 1990's era that was so much better.

    LOL at the Gen X hipsters who are going to tell me that only sheeple listen to metal and popular 80's rock groups. Guess what, dickheads? 1991 was the last year to not be fagged out and was also the last year with several all time best selling rock albums released. Metallica (Boomer), Ten by Pearl Jam (Vedder '64 born), and Nirvana's Nevermind (Krist is a borderline Boomer, '65 born). The post 1991 era was too stricken by culture war angst and post '65 births to produce much entertaining rock music. Boomer rock acts remain more popular (as measured by concert attendance) than Gen X acts. I've found that of the "Gen X" bands I like, they tend to have at least one person born before 1966.


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