Quick post: How to measure electoral success (other than winning) in US presidential elections

There needs to be a web plugin that blocks Australian journalists talking about the US presidential election.  Or, at the very least, Twitter needs one of those automated warnings: ‘Be catious! Australian journos are talking horseshit about the US presidential election. Also, their media still gives a platform to people you thought the US and UK had exiled to the moon. Treat with caution.’

I don’t have many opinions about the US presidential election because I’m not an expert in it.  I keep my opinions very strictly in the lanes of me knowing what I’m talking about.

Anyway, a lot of Australian journos were particularly excited because ‘Joe Biden has now won more votes than any other Presidential candidate in US history. The current tally is at more than 71.3 million, breaking the previous record of 69.4 million set by Barack Obama in 2008.‘  And I thought I would show y’all some numbers…

Whenever I talk to people involved in US politics and law, I’m genuinely shocked at how complex it all is.  The system is clearly over-designed to suit the needs of 1700s slave owners and not, y’know, modern society.  Federalism doesn’t work in any country, and especially not in the USA.

One question that keeps emerging is what lessons political parties, political activists, and political media can take from the US.  Why do so many political strategies developed in the US fail when they come to Australia, and yet so many features of political media migrate rapidly?  What is the nature of the disconnect, and what are driving these outcomes?

A major feature of the US system is the lack of compulsory voting.  There’s a real need to keep your base frothing and engaged in the US, but less of a need in Australia.  And yet we see a lot of convergence in political media: constantly frothing people up over increasingly trivial issues.  In Australia, the wrong people get frothed up while the bulk of normal voters just disengage (in the US, disengaged voters are unlikely to be voters; in Australia, disengaged voters are likely to vote for whomever they voted for since they turned 18).

Let’s look at what a spectacular problem this is.

The population of people in the US eligible to vote is increasing, but the voter turnout is surprisingly stable.  When viewed in terms of the population eligible to vote, the person who was most successful in ‘getting out the vote’ was Reagan in 1984.  Even then, the variation among ‘winning’ candidates is not large.  Winners typically have between 25-30% of the voter turnout… which is terrifying.

What’s potentially more interesting is the voter turnout of the losing candidate which looks like it’s trending upwards.

And now here’s the fun part.  On these numbers, Biden appears to have done a competent job, but nothing outstanding.  He won with a share of the VEP on the upper end of the spectrum for winning candidates.  The question hotly debates is whether or not Sanders would have got out more of the vote (possibly, who knows?) but would he have done it at the expense of getting out more of Trump’s vote?

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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