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%|
|2008*||231,229,580||NA||132,618,580||56.8||Obama v McCain||69,499,428||52.41%||30.06%|
|2004||221,256,931||174,800,000||122,294,978||55.3||Bush v Kerry||62,040,610||50.73%||28.04%|
|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|
|1996||196,511,000||146,211,960||96,456,345||49.1||Clinton v Dole||47,400,125||49.14%||24.12%|
|1992||189,529,000||133,821,178||104,405,155||55.1||Clinton v Bush||44,909,806||43.01%||23.70%|
|1988||182,778,000||126,379,628||91,594,693||50.1||Bush v Dukakis||48,886,597||53.37%||26.75%|
|1984||174,466,000||124,150,614||92,652,680||53.1||Reagan v Mondale||54,455,472||58.77%||31.21%|
|1980||164,597,000||113,043,734||86,515,221||52.6||Reagan v Carter||43,903,230||50.75%||26.67%|
|1976||152,309,190||105,037,986||81,555,789||53.6||Carter v Ford||40,831,881||50.07%||26.81%|
|1972||140,776,000||97,328,541||77,718,554||55.2||Nixon v McGovern||47,168,710||60.69%||33.51%|
|1968||120,328,186||81,658,180||73,211,875||60.8||Nixon v Humphrey||31,783,783||43.41%||26.41%|
|1964||114,090,000||73,715,818||70,644,592||61.9||Johnson v Goldwater||43,127,041||61.05%||37.80%|
|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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