With 30% more Democrats, why are the races so close?

I don’t identify with a party, just curious about this. According to Wikipedia, the Democratic party has about 31% more registered voters, 72 million, than the republicans, at 55 million.

I understand that whole states are won and lost because of the electoral college system. Still, shouldn’t a party that has 30% more voters handily win an election? My earliest political memories go back to Bush 1 vs Clinton, and it doesn’t seem that the Democrats have had such an overwhelming advantage that their numbers seem to claim (maybe the party sizes were more even back then?)

Thanks for any insight

It often depends on which party, overall, has better motivated voters ready to get out and vote, versus which party might be full of apathetic voters.

In the current election cycle, it seems that Republicans in general are boiling with outrage, and would thus be expected to turn out like Genghis Khan’s hordes at the polls. Yet, OTOH, there seems so little enthusiasm among Republicans for Romney that, should he be nominated, maybe a lot of Republicans will stay home.

As for the Democrats, there’s a lot of apathy brewing either due to complacency with having Obama being the incumbent, or among the more “progressive” Democrats who are disappointed that Obama doesn’t act like he has enough fire in his belly. So there may be stay-at-home non-voters there too.

The general election in November may very possibly turn on the overall turn-out of voters, both Republican and Democrat, rather than their total registered numbers. What a shame.

ETA: And of course, there are all those “independents” out there, who might swing either way, or, if sufficiently grossed out by it all, stay home. By all news analyses I’ve ever read, getting those independent votes is a really big deal. The current trend of Republican candidates speaking to their extreme right base is a clear possibility to backfire there. Just note, for example, how badly they are looking to lose the women and Hispanic votes with their outspoken positions on issues that matter to women and Hispanics.

Beyond apathy, voting does take time out of the day if you don’t plan ahead and vote absentee. (which is still related to apathy of course) Republicans have a substantial majority among retirees, who are among the most reliable voters. Part of that is a generational ethic, but part of it is that they don’t have to miss work to vote. Younger people tend to follow politics less closely, and Democrats are strongest among the younger demographics.

In presidential politics, the dynamics of elector assignment play a huge role. States with smaller populations get significantly more electors per capita. If a state had but three residents, each would have thier own elector.

I do not think that whether a person is “registered” Democrat or Republican necessarily correlates very closely with how they vote. It is not like it costs anything to register with one or other party, and your affiliation affects very little except what primaries you are allowed to vote in (and sometimes not even that). Many may have registered long ago, when they were young and liberal, changed their political opinions since, but not bothered to change their registered affiliation. Notoriously, so called “Reagan Democrats” - registered blue-collar Democrats who liked, and voted for Reagan - have mostly continued to vote Republican ever since.

How many states don’t require that you belong to a specific party? Mine and others do not. How are the folks in these states counted towards those numbers?

Yes, there is also a large group of so-called independents, only some of whom are actually swing voters and many of who reliably lean one way or the other, but the bigger issue is that the registered Democratic voters include many who often fail to come up on election day. That’s why polls that survey “registered voters” give better numbers for Democrats and polls that survey “likely voters” give better numbers for Republicans. See, for example, this 538 discussion of the subject.

The system does play a very large part in this. Where you live has a high correlation to how you vote, and by that I mean that urban areas in general and central cities in particular are heavily Democratic and rural and farm areas are heavily Republican. As a general principle, density correlates to party. So the New England states and New York are solidly Democratic - after the 2008 election there was not a single Republican representative from east of the Hudson River, IIRC - and so are the West Coast States. Obama won by 10 million votes. The pluralities In New York and California alone were over 5 million votes.

That leads to another effect not often talked about. Because New York and California are safe states for the Dems and because it is so incredibly expensive to do a statewide media campaign in them, the parties do the minimal effort merely to help candidates in the lesser races. We don’t get the wall-to-wall commercials and get out the vote drives. That almost certainly underplays the already large advantage for the Dems. Historically, Democratic blocs like blacks, Hispanics, and young voters vote in below-average percentages while Republican blocs like older people vote in above average percentages. Almost certainly, a concentrated drive could pick up another million or 3 of those groups for a presidential election but the specific payback isn’t thought cost effective.

Now the reverse of this is true for the Republicans, but that is all in much smaller states. While McCain drew large majorities in a number of states, he did not win by a even a million in any single one. It was over half a million only in Texas.

This basic effect also appears within parties, and is especially notable this year with Romney winning urban areas and Santorum winning rural ones. Look at the map of the Ohio primary. Romney shows a few dots of orange in a sea of Santorum green. But those orange dots are urban metro areas and those were enough to give him the win.

Distribution of voters means everything when it’s winner-take-all by state. Switch to any other system and the campaigns would be so different that predictions of results would be almost worthless.

In another example, in areas with heavy concentrations of one party, people who sympathize with the other party may well register with the dominant party so as to be able to vote in the primaries - which are the only election that matters.

As a case in point, when I lived in NYC I was a registered Democrat, and I’ve never voted for a Democrat in any state or federal election (AFAICR).

You misread something-- there have not been 30% more Democrats than Republicans
for the last 24 years at least, and there are now only about 7% more: 31-39.


Gallup Polls: Party Indentification 1988-2010

Party ID aside, note there are usually more independents than either Democrats or
Republicans. It is the independent vote which is the key to all national elections.

Another factor, which I cannot quickly locate citation for, is that turnout tends to be
significantly higher among Republicans.

You’re referring to different statistics. If 39% of the population is Democrats and 31% Republicans, then there are 26% more Democrats than Republicans (39/31 - 1). You’re using the difference as the difference in percentage of the total population (39 - 31), which is not the same thing.

Which leaves 30% independents, which can easily swing an election either way, even if the rest vote only for their party.

ETA: There are some 3rd party members, but they are likely to vote for one of the 2 major party candidates. A popular 3rd party candidate throws everything off depending on how the candidate attracts members of the other parties.

Did you mean, “how many states don’t care which party you belong to if you vote in a primary”? Like Santorum encouraging Democrats in Michigan to come vote for him (to say he could beat Romney in his home state)? Or the Democrats who were encouraging other Dems to vote Santorum in the primary because they thought he would be the easiest target for Obama to beat?

Some states allow “cross-over voting” in primaries. Some don’t. Some allow “independent” (no registered party) to pick a party to vote in the primary, some don’t. Your Mileage May Vary, depending on state.

You need to be registered as a voter to vote in the actual elections. (From what I’ve read, up here in Canada). This is a good and a bad thing, because if you don’t get around to registering in time (what, weeks before the election? Months?) you can’t vote. Voter registration does NOT require you to identify a political party.

Much of the debate about voter registration and needing ID to vote centers around the Democrat contention that the Republicans are trying to block votes by poor people, felons, or minorities, who supposedly tend to vote Dem, and Republican fears that the Dems will trot out invalid, ineligible voters by the busload to stuff the ballot boxes.

Indeed, many locations are famous (both parties) in ensuring in the past, that for example everyone in the cemetery who was eligible to vote, did so, early and often…

I saw an interview with Bill Clinton a few years ago (just after the last election, I think). In presidential elecion, he said, there used to be a core set of voters, about 40% each side, who would vote for their party anyway. The middle 20% were independent/undecided and those were the ones who had to be persuaded every 4 years to decide the election. Lately, he said, the ratio had altered slightly and there was about 45% Rep, 40% Dem and 15% undecided. Of course, not all those voters are registered paid up party members.

As mentioned above, the winner-take-all per state process and the electoral college meant that only a few states (Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania are mentioned often) are usually close enough to need serious campaigning. The others, like CA, NY, MA, TX, etc. are usually to much of an uphill battle for the other candidate.

The “McCain-Romney-Giuliani” problem is that the more fantical voters tend to care and participate in the primary process; so a more extreme viewpoint is likely to get these votes, especially in the Republican process. Those candidates, for example, were moderates with a firm belief in issues like good health care laws and in favour of abortion until they realized that would effectively exclude them from winning the Republican nomination. However, it’s a balancing act. The more they pander to conservatives, the less they will appeal (and the more vulnerale to attack ads) when trying to persuade that last 15% of undecided. however, if they are too middle-of-the-road, they will turn off the more right-wing “true believers” in their party, who may not come out to vote. The Dems have similar problems with abortion rights and women’s/minority rights, union rights, and other issues dear to the heart of their more fanatical members.

That points out the BIGGEST flaw in the US system - about 55% of the voters actually vote. The purpose of those big candidate campaign offices everywhere, the voter registration drives, the phone polls and door to door, is to identify those who say they will vote for your candidate, then try their best to get those people out to the polling station on election day.

Only in presidential elections. the rest of the time, it’s much lower than that. Only 41.6% of eligible voters in 2010, and that’s significantly higher than most mid-term elections.

The voting rate varies dramatically in different regions. Texas, the second largest state, saw less than 33% turnout in 2010, the worst among all states.

Typo-- sorry.

The Gallup poll reported 31-29 Democrats-Republicans.

31/29 = 1.068965517 = apprx. 7% more Democrats.

The Gallup numbers are stated party identification, whether or not they are registered to vote (let alone likely to vote) - a different figure. They also may refer to different time periods: Gallup’s '08 numbers were 36/28 about 29% more Democrats over Republicans. Voter ID can be fluid and 2010 was a 22 year low for Democratic ID, mostly with many moving into the “independent” camp. Such may not be true of who is registered where.

All but two states limit franchise of felons.

State Felon Voting Laws

Doesn’t anyone open citation links around here? See reply #9:

Gallup Polls: Party Indentification 1988-2010

Clinton is way off; in 2010 the numbers were:

38% Independent
31% Democrat
29% Republican

Neither major party has attained 40% since long before Clinton was president.

OP seemed under the impression that the Democrats have usually enjoyed a 26%
margin and that they do so now, and neither is true.

Also, if it is true that Republicans are more likely to vote then it is reasonable to
assume that a higher percentage of Republicans are registered.

Again, these are voter ID numbers. Eyeballing it those numbers seem to have averaged about 10% more Democratic voter ID with both parties usually losing out to those who identify themselves as independent most years. But also note that most who call themselves “independent” really are not.

In any case, no not the numbers that the op cites. But Gallup also gives us number with leaners (which as above really can be as relied upon as those who say they ID as) and those may be the numbers Clinton means. With leaners its been generally averaging 47% Democrat to 43% Republican with roughly only 10% most years as real “independents.” But no consistent difference in those figures over time … up down and back again.

Another source is pollster.com which shows that currently the Democratic advantage in voter ID pooling polls of both RV and LVs is about 13%. That source has independents down below either party ID as well: 27% I; 38.6% D; 34% R.


I believe Clinton was referring to voter intentions, rather than committed (paid up?) membership numbers. A lot of people probably would never vote for any danged $%**@## from that party, even though they never signed up with their favourite party. He was talking about election campaigns, strategies, and how each side could go about getting elected. Seemed like reasonable and knowledgeable commentary from a Rhodes scholar with a lifetime of political experience.

You find something similar in Canada - even though actual party memebrships are in the low single digits, people who are determined to only vote for one party are usually about 20% to 30% of the population.

According to the second graph in the Gallup cites the two parties were dead even
(allowing for margin of error) in both 1/10 and 1/11 at ~45% with about ~10% independent,
and there has been no point since 1988 where the numbers were 45-40-15.

45-40-15 is not bad for an off-the-cuff estimate, and is better than way off,
although it suprises me that Clinton was not as precise as he could have been.