PRINCETON, NJ -- Turnout in the midterm elections this fall could be lower than in the past two midterm elections, based on current voter engagement. On each of three indicators of voter engagement in midterm elections -- how much thought Americans have given to them, their expressed motivation to vote, and their enthusiasm about voting compared with past elections -- 2014 looks more like lower-turnout years 1998 and 2002 than higher-turnout years 2006 and 2010.
The latest results are based on Gallup's Sept. 25-30 poll, which includes updates on several key election indicators. Although voter turnout has not varied greatly in recent midterm elections -- ranging from a low of 38.1% of eligible voters in 1998 to a high of 40.9% in 2010 -- there is a positive correlation between greater voter engagement on these measures and higher voter turnout.
One likely reason voter turnout was higher in 2006 and 2010 was that Americans were deeply dissatisfied with the state of the nation, as well as the jobs the president and Congress were doing. In those elections, the same party controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, so voters looking to change the government had a clear and obvious way to do so -- voting against members of Congress from the majority party. And that is precisely what happened, with Democrats winning control of both houses of Congress in 2006, and Republicans winning control of the House of Representatives in 2010.
In 1998 and 2002, in contrast, Americans were generally pleased with the way things were going in the country and with the job performance of the president and Congress -- even with divided party control -- and were thus less motivated to use their vote to try to change the government. Accordingly, there was little change in the party composition of Congress after those elections.
This year presents a different set of circumstances. Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the nation and generally unhappy with the job the president is doing and even more so with the job Congress is doing. Earlier Gallup research suggested that low approval of Congress is associated with higher voter turnout in midterms. However, with a Democratic president and divided party control of Congress, there is no clear remedy to inspire voters to change things this year, and that may be keeping Americans' motivation to vote and enthusiasm about voting in check.
Republicans Poised for Stronger Turnout
Usually, Republicans vote at higher rates than Democrats, and this is evident in higher scores for Republicans than for Democrats on the voter engagement questions, including this year. In fact, the Republican advantages on each of the three turnout measures at this point approach what Gallup measured in the strong GOP year of 2010 rather than in other midterm election years. As a result, even if overall turnout is depressed compared with prior years, Republicans appear poised to turn out in greater numbers than Democrats.
It is possible that each of these turnout items is not a pure measure of intention to vote, but also picks up partisans' sense of how their preferred party will perform in the elections. In other words, Democrats may be less likely to report thinking about the elections, being motivated to vote, or being enthusiastic about voting if they expect their party to perform poorly in the elections, even if they fully intend to vote. Most political indicators point to 2014 being a stronger Republican year, and political experts expect the Republicans to increase their majority in the House and pick up seats in the Senate, possibly enough to win control of the upper chamber. The prospect of Republican control of both houses of Congress may make rank-and-file Republicans feel more motivated to vote, particularly in states that have important Senate elections in which their vote should matter more in determining the balance of power.
As a result, these turnout indicators may exaggerate the likely Republican turnout advantage on Election Day. However, even if that is the case, these data certainly do not suggest that Democratic turnout will be able to match or exceed Republican turnout.
Although the current political environment in many respects is more similar to the anger and frustration that led to higher voter turnout in 2006 and 2010 than to the generally content electorates that voted at lower rates in 1998 and 2002, Gallup's key indicators point to voter turnout that more closely approaches the latter elections than the former. The key to explaining that may lie in the current divided party control of Congress, with voters having no clear way to act on their frustrations with the state of the nation and the government. With little hope of 2014 being a "change" election -- even if Republicans win the Senate, the GOP-controlled Congress will have to contend with a Democratic president -- more Americans appear to be willing to sit out this fall's elections than was the case in the previous two midterm election years.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 25-30, 2014, with a random sample of 1,252 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.