Monday, June 17, 2024

The Nexis of Mobilization & Engaged (or lack thereof) Voters

By Michael Bitzer

As we get into the summer lull of the general campaign before the unprecedented first presidential debate, followed by the party conventions (along with the Olympics in between the conventions), watchers of American politics are being bombarded by poll after poll about where various races stand. 

In other words, it's the dog days of summer and horserace polls that only tell us so much several months out from the general election. 

But one thing that has struck me is the early focus on who will likely be '2024 voters' and how the two parties (and other parties as well) will seek to motivate, mobilize, and get their voters--both the diehard engaged and those 'disengaged'--to November's polls.

In North Carolina, for political analysts and (especially) political operatives and campaigns, data can tell us which voters have been 'consistent' participants in their voting habits (thus, what we could describe as engaged voters), as opposed to those who are registered, but for whatever reason, just don't show up--what the AP focused on in a recent article on disengaged voters in the Old North State

One recent example in North Carolina is enlightening as to the cause and effect when it comes to voters who cast ballots--or more importantly, don't mobilize to cast a ballot. 

The most recent election of 2022 in North Carolina featured what was thought of as a highly competitive U.S. Senate election between Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley, the first African American woman to run for that office in the state. 

In the end, Budd won with 50.5 percent of the vote to Beasley's 47.3 percent of the vote, with a difference of 121,737 votes. 

With such a close election, it got me to thinking about, would there have been an opportunity to make 2022 even closer of an election, based on perceived voter engagement?

Thinking About Voter Engagement

To demonstrate a level of voter engagement, I want to take readers back to 2018's election, a unique election environment in the state known as a "blue-moon election cycle." Meaning, once every twelve years, North Carolina does not have a major state-wide contest on the mid-term ballot: no U.S. Senate race, nor any state-wide executive contests (because they are during presidential election years). 

So, with no 'top-of-the-ticket' major contest to focus voter attention on, it's usually thought that these 'blue-moon' mid-term elections would be low-level events for voters. But 2018 was unique, in that it was the mid-term referendum on the polarizing Trump presidency (as most mid-term elections are), and ultimately 53 percent of North Carolina's registered voters participated (the estimated national turnout average of 50 percent, per the U.S. Elections Project). 

Two years later, the highly contested 2020 presidential election had a record 75 percent of NC's registered voters cast a ballot. 

With three-quarters of NC's registered voters casting a ballot in 2020, combined with the perceived high vote of 2018's blue-moon cycle, one would think that a NC voter who cast a ballot in both 2018 (no major state-wide contest, but a seemingly high-level of political interest) and 2020 (a highly contested presidential election year, along with a competitive U.S. Senate and N.C. gubernatorial races in the state) would likely be engaged voters and thus be most prone to participate in 2022's election. 

So What Happened Among Previously Engaged Voters in 2022?

In analyzing voter registration and history data from the NC State Board of Elections, nearly 661,000 North Carolina registered voters who voted in 2018 and 2020 ended up not voting in 2022. If all of those voters had cast a ballot, the state-wide turnout rate would have increased to 60 percent. 

Now, we don't know why these 661K NC voters who voted in 2018 & 2020 decided not to vote in 2022, but we do know a couple of key factors about these voters.

For instance, registered Democrats were 41 percent of these non-2022 voters who did vote in the previous two elections. Another 31 percent were registered unaffiliated voters, and 27 percent were registered Republicans. Comparing these percentages against the registered voter pool, registered Democrats had a higher percentage of disengaged voters, while registered Republicans had a lower percentage. 

By race-ethnicity, sixty percent were White non-Hispanic, with 27 percent Black/African American (non-Hispanic), 4 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 9 percent all other races or unknown/unreported race & ethnicity. Thus, voters of color which more likely to be non-engaged voters in 2022 than White voters.

One thing that stuck out to me were the Black/African American voters. In general, Black voters are 20 percent of the voter registration pool, but in 2022, they were only 17 percent of the overall electorate--meaning, these voters didn't 'punch up' to their electoral weight. 

A Surprising Gender Dynamic Among Non-Engaged 2022 Voters

In further analyzing the numbers, I broke each racial/ethnic category down among gender, and found what is a surprising dynamic. Normally, men tend to be greater 'non-voter' gender, but among 2018 & 2020 voters who didn't vote in 2022, it was actually women who had the overall greatest percentage of being a non-2022 voter.

Data from NC State Board of Elections Voter Registration and History files, compiled by author.

Overall, women were 63 percent of the total Black/African American non-2022 engaged voters, compared to 56 percent of women who were White non-2022 engaged voters (the first set of column graphs above).

Breaking it down by party registration, Black Democratic women were 64 percent of the 'no-show' 2022 Black voters, while White Democratic women were 63 percent of 'no-show' White voters. 

If these 'no-show' 2022 Black Democratic female voters, who had voted in 2018 and 2020, participated in 2022 and voted their Democratic party registration, Beasley may have made up potentially 90,000 votes, cutting the 121K vote lead for Budd down to a little over thirty thousand. 

And among that group, nearly 53,000 Black Democratic women live in strong Democratic precincts (precincts that voted 60 percent or greater for Democrats for US president, US Senate, and NC governor in 2020). In other words, nearly sixty percent of Black Democratic women live in areas that, presumably, would have voted overwhelming Democratic.

Engagement Lessons for 2024's Election

So the lesson learned out of the 2022 NC election is: if a voter has a propensity to cast ballots in previous elections, but then drops out of the electorate (especially among a core constituency of one of the major political parties), the lack of mobilization of perceived 'engaged' voters in highly competitive elections could be a glaring issue for that party, and for their ultimate bottom line of whether they win or lose an election.

Turning to 2024's election, this lesson learned can be applicable to both sides of the political aisle. With polls indicating a lack of enthusiasm potentially with both presidential candidates by their respective base of voters, 2024 may turn into a contest of 'coalition cohesion' and mobilization: which party has the greatest percentage of keeping their base voters together for November, both in terms of showing up to vote and being a consistent party voter? 

If previously engaged voters decide to sit out this election, and are core supporters of one party over the other, it doesn't take that much to decide who wins an election. 


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College, where he is a professor of politics and history. He is the author of Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battle Lines in the Tar Heel State.