PowerBlog: 2016 Election Turnout Encourages Humility

Yesterday at the Acton PowerBlog, I continued my dive into the post-election data. As with my last two posts, I found some surprising things when examining more detailed reporting on voter turnout.

There is a meme going around of a graph that shows depressed turnout for Democrats compared to 2012 and 2008, implying that Sec. Clinton lost because she failed to turn out her base. There may be some truth to this, but it doesn’t add up when we remember that presidents in the United States are elected by the Electoral College and thus on a state-by-state basis.

I write,

I’m unsure the source of the data. It may be completely accurate, but even if so it is misleading. As Carl Bialik wrote last week for FiveThirtyEight, “On average, turnout was unchanged in states that voted for Trump, while it fell by an average of 2.3 percentage points in states that voted for Clinton. Relatedly, turnout was higher in competitive states — most of which Trump won.”

So turnout was depressed for Clinton, but apparently only in those states that she won. Low turnout, then, can’t explain why she lost the states she didn’t win. And, in fact, this doesn’t even capture the phenomenon accurately, since she is on track to win some states by a greater margin than Obama did in 2012. Thus, depressed turnout in the states she won might mean fewer Republican-leaning voters there and not that she failed to turn out her Democratic-leaning base.

To me, this sort of complexity ought to encourage humility. There are limits to our knowledge and explanations, and failing to forget that only gives warrant to unhelpful, even if well-intended, self-justifications.

I write,

All this is not to say that anyone who shared the graph … is some self-serving huckster looking for Facebook “likes” or even that they are therefore rationalists. I almost shared it myself, in fact. It is interesting, and I’m thankful that someone shared it with me. Rather, my point is only to highlight that while turnout is another piece of the puzzle, it also turns out to be more than it appears. Correcting our assumptions about the existence of unexplainable aspects of reality can help us maintain our humility and safeguard against making hasty conclusions, mistakenly presuming that all of reality can fit into our heads, even as we admirably seek to know all that we can.

Read the whole post here.