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Will Obama Have a Turnout Problem?

As I mentioned yesterday, Obama is doing worse among likely voters than registered voters. This isn’t totally shocking: Historically, Republicans perform two percentage points better in polls of likely voters, but it varies from election to election and the gap could increase if Democrats become even more dependent on low-turnout demographic groups, like young and Latino voters. Currently, Obama’s four percentage point gap (in an admittedly small sample) indicates that low turnout might be an usually significant challenge for Obama’s reelection effort, but its too early to say.

Why is Obama doing worse among likely voters?

The difference between likely and registered voter polls is largely attributable to changes in the racial/ethnic composition of the electorate, with young and non-white voters constituting a smaller share of likely voters than registered voters. Gallup’s tracking poll shows that 81 percent of white voters say they will “definitely vote,” compared with just 71 percent of non-white voters. Similarly, Gallup finds that 88 percent of Republicans say they will definitely vote, more than the 82 percent of Democrats who respond similarly. Just 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters say they will definitely vote—a number unchanged since April, when 59 percent said they would definitely vote. Armed with data from two Monmouth University polls, Harry Enten has similar findings.

While these numbers might be sobering for Democrats, the heart of the campaign season is still months away and likely voter polls in June might not provide a good indication of the eventual electorate. Even over the last month, Gallup’s weekly tracking poll has shown Hispanic voters becoming more energized, with 66 percent of Hispanics saying they will “definitely” vote, up from 58 percent in April. No other demographic group has shown similar movement.

Hispanics still trail whites (81 percent say they will definitely vote) and African Americans (76 percent), but that was probably true in 2008. The point is that changes between April and June suggest that it would be unwise to assume that current likely voter polls approximate the eventual electorate in November. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of non-white turnout to Obama’s chances. Obama’s 2008 victory was built on historic showings from traditionally low-turnout groups, including young voters and African Americans, and most polls suggest that Obama is holding strong among non-white voters. If non-white voters turn out and support Obama to the same extent that they did in 2008 (26 percent of the electorate, 80 percent for Obama), then Obama’s 38.8 percent share of the white vote would give Obama more than 49 percent of the national popular vote, even without winning any additional undecided voters.

Of course, the likely voter models suggest that the Obama campaign can’t count on repeating their historic performance with non-white voters. In this context, the Obama campaign’s decision to invest enormous sums in a sophisticated ground operation is unsurprising. In addition to potentially prodding Obama supporters who currently seem unlikely to vote, a strong ground operation can help take advantage of demographic changes by adding newly registered voters who can help compensate for diminished enthusiasm and lower turnout rates among Obama ’08 supporters. While it’s hard to say whether Obama’s vaunted ground operation will replicate ’08 turnout among young and non-white voters, there’s no question that the Obama campaign is willing to invest the money necessary to find out.