Democracy? 25% Elect Obama (similar to other elections)

According to John Locke, “the government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed.” What constitutes such consent? What percent of the (voting-age) governed would constitute consent of the governed? 

Turnout for the 2012 Presidential election was 126 M out of about 219 M eligible voters (57.5%; as of 11/7/12; also see, American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate), a lower turnout than 2008. Barack Obama won with 62,049,770 votes (49.25% of turnout; 28.33% of eligible voters) to Mitt Romney’s 58,757,388 (46.63% of turnout; 26.83% of eligible voters). One of the most significant aspects of the election was the record Latino vote, the fact that Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama (75%), and 500,000 Latino voters will mature to voting age each year for the foreseeable future.

John Nichols, in the Nation Magazine, notes that this margin of victory was greater than the margin of victory for Kennedy (49.71%), Nixon (43.41%), Carter (50.07%), or Bush (50.73%) and implies a progressive mandate. Basing a mandate on margin of victory makes some sense, but it’s interesting to view these elections in terms of the percent of the voting-age population the candidates attracted (31.35%, 26.41%, 26.81%, 28.04% respectively). Obama was elected by about 26% of the voting-age population, a figure not very different from most other Presidential elections (see table below) and actually less than every president in John Nichols’ list. In any case, being elected by about 1/4 of the voting-age population hardly inspires use of the term “mandate”. Indeed, the fact that every president since 1960 has been elected by less than 38% of the voting-age population, leads one to wonder about how democratic our democracy is and how legitimate our government is.

  Voting-age Population Voter Registration Voter Turnout Turnout of voting-age Contenders # Votes % of votes % of voting-age Note
2012** 240,926,957 219,000,000 126,000,000 52.30% Obama v Romney 62,049,770 49.25% 25.75%  
2010 235,809,266 NA 90,682,968 37.80%          
2008* 231,229,580 NA 132,618,580 56.8 Obama v McCain 69,499,428 52.41% 30.06%  
2006 220,600,000 135,889,600 80,588,000 37.1          
2004 221,256,931 174,800,000 122,294,978 55.3 Bush v Kerry 62,040,610 50.73% 28.04%  
2002 215,473,000 150,990,598 79,830,119 37          
2000 205,815,000 156,421,311 105,586,274 51.3 Bush v Gore 50,460,110 47.79% 24.52% Gore won popular vote with 51,003,926
1998 200,929,000 141,850,558 73,117,022 36.4          
1996 196,511,000 146,211,960 96,456,345 49.1 Clinton v Dole 47,400,125 49.14% 24.12%  
1994 193,650,000 130,292,822 75,105,860 38.8          
1992 189,529,000 133,821,178 104,405,155 55.1 Clinton v Bush 44,909,806 43.01% 23.70%  
1990 185,812,000 121,105,630 67,859,189 36.5          
1988 182,778,000 126,379,628 91,594,693 50.1 Bush v Dukakis 48,886,597 53.37% 26.75%  
1986 178,566,000 118,399,984 64,991,128 36.4          
1984 174,466,000 124,150,614 92,652,680 53.1 Reagan v Mondale 54,455,472 58.77% 31.21%  
1982 169,938,000 110,671,225 67,615,576 39.8          
1980 164,597,000 113,043,734 86,515,221 52.6 Reagan v Carter 43,903,230 50.75% 26.67%  
1978 158,373,000 103,291,265 58,917,938 37.2          
1976 152,309,190 105,037,986 81,555,789 53.6 Carter v Ford 40,831,881 50.07% 26.81%  
1974 146,336,000 961,990,201 55,943,834 38.2          
1972 140,776,000 97,328,541 77,718,554 55.2 Nixon v McGovern 47,168,710 60.69% 33.51%  
1970 124,498,000 824,967,472 58,014,338 46.6          
1968 120,328,186 81,658,180 73,211,875 60.8 Nixon v Humphrey 31,783,783 43.41% 26.41%  
1966 116,132,000 762,882,833 56,188,046 48.4          
1964 114,090,000 73,715,818 70,644,592 61.9 Johnson v Goldwater 43,127,041 61.05% 37.80%  
1962 112,423,000 653,937,514 53,141,227 47.3          
1960 109,159,000 648,330,965 68,838,204 63.1 Kennedy v Nixon 34,220,984 49.71% 31.35%  
Main sources for table:     Voter turnout by year: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html; Presidential results by year: http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/ (xls file: election turnout)
** Note: these are approximate numbers because states are still reporting their turnout. But, sources for these estimates are: http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2012G.html and http://online.wsj.com/article/AP8eb715b9e6b64e92ae6c920e6d65c52e.html

 

Another source for voter turnout: http://www.nonprofitvote.org/voter-turnout-factors.html

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