Non-voters dominate Super Tuesday

5% higher non-voter turnout would have rewritten the map

Super Tuesday voters handed Joe Biden a decisive win.

…at least, those voters who showed up. 12.5M voted in the Democratic primary, or just 22% of the people eligible to vote in it. While Biden won the primary itself, it hardly represented all eligible Democrats (much less the general electorate).

This is typical of primaries: 5–10% of eligible voters decide which candidates everyone gets to pick from in the general election. This can be good (primary voters are more informed); this can be bad (primary voters are disproportionately old and partisan). The implication for campaign strategy is undisputed: identify your base, and do everything possible to drive turnout.

Biden and Sanders performed best in Virginia and Vermont, winning 53% and 50% of the primary respectively. It’s no coincidence that both states saw the highest participation, with 34% eligible voters voting in Virginia, and an impressive 45% in Sanders’ home state of Vermont.

Sanders was counting on high turnout from his base (especially notoriously low-turnout youth voters) to overcome a wider Biden coalition of less energetic support. For Sanders to have beaten Biden, here’s how many more non-voters he needed to mobilize:

Five percent extra turnout from non-voters would have flipped Super Tuesday for Sanders. Maine and Texas needed less than 1%. Any candidate who can skim just the top off this deep pool of latent non-voters will dominate America’s low turnout elections.

This is easier said than done, which is why campaigns only target high-turnout voters– defined as voters who’ve already voted in several previous elections. This strategy minimizes wasted outreach, but excludes large swaths of voters who are persuadable, but never hear from campaigns.

For example: a 22-year-old student who didn’t vote in 2016 would be branded as “low-turnout” and ignored. But if that student knows people who vote, reaching out through a politically engaged friend is a proven method for getting them to vote, too. Persuadability depends on who’s doing the persuading– a nuance demographic microtargeting misses.

Most campaigns use commodified “turnout scores” from a handful of data companies, but a few are experimenting with a more personalized approach. Stratos.blue lets volunteers match their email and phone contacts with campaigns’ own voter files to identify medium-turnout voters they can personally influence. Targeting outreach through supporters’ social networks lets campaigns target and turnout the sorts of voters that get written off by traditional models.

While both Biden and Sanders grabbed headlines, a third candidate demonstrated strong turnout: Donald Trump.

The #1 and #2 reason people don’t vote are:

  1. Not liking any of the candidates
  2. Believing their vote has no impact

Despite this, Republicans turned out in comparable numbers for a purely symbolic vote (Trump won most states by 90–95%.)

If Democrats hope to defeat a united Republican party, they’ll need to find ways to turnout at least some of America’s 100M non-voters.


Super Tuesday result data from the New York Times, accessed 3/4/2020 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/03/us/elections/results-super-tuesday-primary-election.html

Eligible voter and other demographic data from the United States Election Project http://www.electproject.org/2020p

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