What people are not paying nearly as much attention to is the turnout implications for the November elections. Hillary Clinton is struggling to garner support among young Democratic women as they move more toward Sanders, is unpopular among much of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump and others have mobilized against her given her status as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Trump has garnered marked opposition and controversy from both the Democratic and Republican establishments. Cruz is deemed too conservative to be viable in the general election. (Rubio would likely fare the best against the Democrats, but is suffering in the primary battle).
This results in a number of people left not simply to vote for their second choice candidate, but to choose between candidates whose unfavorables are unprecedentedly high in both parties. Such a scenario can produce one of two outcomes. On the one hand, we may see comparable rates of turnout in the presidential election, but because people are voting against the candidate of the opposing political party. The other potential outcome is an unusually low turnout given pervasive dissatisfaction with candidate choices.
Electoral turnout raises important questions of democratic theory, with citizen participation in the democratic process being essential (though normative questions sometimes arise as to the importance of voter information in this discussion of turnout for the sake of turnout). Presidential election turnout also has important impacts on the additional races that will come before the American electorate on November 8.
Every two years, the entire House of Representatives is up for reelection. Cook Political Report ranked 62 of these races as being competitive and CQ ranked 11 races as toss-ups, with the Democrats needing to net gain 30 seats in order to reclaim control of the chamber. While a partisan turnover in control of the House would be an enormous feat on the part of the Democrats, what this election season has shown if nothing else is the unpredictability of who votes (and how), with presidential elections (rather than down-ticket contests) typically being the races that bring people to the polls.
Moreover, there are a number of key Senate races, with the Republicans left to defend more vulnerable seats (e.g., Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) and in turn some uncertainty as to the partisan composition of the Senate in the 115th Congress, whether changing partisan control or simply moving the median somewhat to the left. Moreover, with some form of direct democracy in 49 states (all but Delaware), a number of ballot measures on issues ranging from capital punishment to abortion to environmental protection to business regulation will be coming before voters, many highly consequential to state and local policymaking.
Some ballot measures are determined by only thousands or even hundreds of votes. While there is a notable incumbency advantage in the House of Representatives, some races in the House and the Senate are nevertheless determined by only a couple of percentage points, with voter turnout thus an important determinant of the ultimate electoral outcome. While the policy differences on the Democratic side are quite modest, with much of the battle being one of ideas versus execution and experience, the Republican Party contest brings to light important friction within the party over core matters of policy substance and the degree of moderate versus extreme versus simply anti-establishment views represented among primary voters at the polls. Who the parties ultimately select as their nominees – and who remains mobilized to support them in November – will thus have important broader consequences for the relationship between the legislative and executive branches (will we have a divided Congress? Will there be a change in strategy with a narrower margin of control?), and for states’ policy adoption.