If Everyone Had Voted, Would Bubba and Dubya Have Won?


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, as part of a panel honoring Ray Wolfinger. The superb research assistance of Jocelyn Kiley is gratefully acknowledged. We also thank Eric Lawrence for useful comments and suggestions.

John Sides is Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.

Eric Schickler is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jack Citrin is the Heller Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


Adapting and refining the approach used in earlier work on Senate elections, we simulate the impact of universal turnout on each presidential election from 1992 to 2004 and find little evidence that increased turnout would systematically transform partisan competition or policy outcomes. A state-level analysis of exit polls and the Current Population Survey reveals considerable variability in the gap separating voters and nonvoters. In most cases, nonvoters are just slightly more Democratic than voters. However, a handful of states, such as Texas, consistently feature a large “partisan differential,” in which nonvoters come disproportionately from demographic groups that are more Democratic than voters. We find that universal turnout may well have tipped an extremely close election—such as that of 2000 or even 2004—into the Democratic column. But the partisan differential is generally small enough that universal turnout would only change the outcome of an already close contest rather than leading to a wholesale transformation of competitive dynamics.