3 Election Day Myths
Elections are a lot less predictable than many of us think
American government: It’s a dirty game and we all know it.
The fat-cat donors.
The career politicians.
The institutions designed to silence our voices.
But the rot goes even deeper than that.
The most powerful force shaping American politics is…
It says here it’s us. It’s the voters.
Well, did not see that coming.
We’ve all heard the complaint: American politics is hopelessly dysfunctional. The country is just too polarized to agree on anything anymore.
And we’re here to tell you that’s wrong. There’s at least one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on: They both think the country is going to hell.
For the past decade, the number of Americans who say they trust the government … has never gone above 27 percent. i And while those numbers change depending on who’s president, even the most loyal partisans aren’t that happy.
The highest level of trust amongst Republicans during the Trump Administration: 36 percent. And the highest level of trust amongst Democrats during the Biden Administration: 36 percent.ii
But here’s the thing: while it might be reasonable to be disappointed by the state of American politics…
Ok, strike that.
While it’s definitely reasonable — and probably a mark of sanity — to be disappointed by the state of American politics, Americans have probably become too pessimistic.
Even in presidential election years, when voter turnout is highest, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of eligible voters don’t cast a ballot.iii In 2020, for instance, there was record turnout — but about 80 million people still didn’t show up at the polls.iv That’s the equivalent of every single person in California, New York, and Florida staying home.
And two-thirds of those nonvoters told pollsters that they don’t think their vote has an effect anyway — because “voting … has little to do with the way that real decisions are made in our country.”v
Which, c’mon, guys: Kelly Clarkson won one vote and has basically been queen of America for 20 years.
So, why do so many of us feel our vote is meaningless? Well, for one thing, a lot of Americans believe that government is shaped by forces outside of their control. And, for another, a lot of us think that, in a country full of red states and blue states, the winners are already a foregone conclusion.
But here’s the thing: The evidence for both of those propositions … is pretty weak.
Let’s look at three common concerns along these lines.
Worry #1: Your vote doesn’t matter because it all comes down to who has the most money.
Seems like an iron rule of politics, right? Well, that would come as news to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who won her first primary despite facing an opponent whose campaign had 10 times as much money.vi Or Donald Trump — who managed to get the Republican presidential nomination despite being outspent by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.vii
In fact, most of our notions about money in politics are probably … totally backwards. Because while it’s true that the candidate who spends the most usually wins, many political scientists say that’s not because money boosts people who otherwise would have lost. It’s because candidates who are already winning tend to attract more donations.viii
Worry #2: The very structure of government is stacked against us.
You can understand why voters might feel helpless. After all, we live in a country where lawmakers draw their own districts through gerrymandering. And where small states dominate big ones in the Senate. What hope do any of us have to get our voices heard?
Well, even there … the reality doesn’t match the stereotype. It’s of course true that politicians try to draw districts that will make it easier for them to get reelected. But an analysis of 20 years’ worth of congressional elections found that only 17 percent of seats that ceased to be competitive changed because they were redrawn to favor one party.ix
So, what happened in the other 83 percent?
Yeah, it turns out that the biggest factor behind our uncompetitive elections isn’t crooked politicians. It’s that Republicans move to be in Republican neighborhoods and Democrats move to be in Democrat neighborhoods. And districts get more partisan as a result.
The idea that small states tip the scales is also misleading. While every state gets two Senate seats, the smallest ones don’t look as different from the rest of the country as is commonly imagined. In fact, in 2022 the 10 smallest states … have 10 Republican senators and 10 Democrats.x
Worry #3 — Because of polarization, there’s no hope for Democrats in red states or Republicans in blue states.
Sounds plausible, right? But here’s the thing: States can be a lot more unpredictable than congressional districts.
In fact, over the past 20 years only five states in the entire country have had all of their senators and governors come exclusively from one party. Which is pretty powerful: At some point, 90 percent of the states in the country looked at each party and said “yeah … no thanks.”
Which all gets to the bigger point: You never know when your vote is going to be the one that turns the tide. At the end of the day, it’s still the voters who are in control. Elections are decided by the people who show up. All of which means we have real power when we step into the voting booth.
And look, if we’re being honest … maybe too much.
- Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022 — Pew Research Center
- Voter Turnout — MIT Election Data and Science Lab
- "Poll: Despite Record Turnout, 80 Million Americans Didn't Vote. Here's Why" (Domenico Montanaro) — NPR
- Non-Voters in 2020 U.S. Election: A Survey of American Adults — Ipsos
- "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Proves That Money Doesn’t Win Elections: Are Democrats Listening?" (Conor Lynch) — Salon
- "CFI’s Guide to Money in Federal Election — 2016 in Historical Context" (Michael J. Malbin, Brendan Glavin) — The Campaign Finance Institute
- "How Money Affects Elections" (Maggie Koerth) — FiveThirtyEight
- "2017 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index: The Decline of the 'Swing Seat'" (David Wasserman, Ally Flinn) — The Cook Political Report
- Senators of the 117th Congress — U.S. Senate
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- Pew Research Center
Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022
- MIT Election Data and Science Lab
"Poll: Despite Record Turnout, 80 Million Americans Didn't Vote. Here's Why" (Domenico Montanaro)
Non-Voters in 2020 U.S. Election: A Survey of American Adults
"Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Proves That Money Doesn’t Win Elections: Are Democrats Listening?" (Conor Lynch)
- The Campaign Finance Institute
"CFI’s Guide to Money in Federal Election — 2016 in Historical Context" (Michael J. Malbin, Brendan Glavin)
"How Money Affects Elections" (Maggie Koerth)
- The Cook Political Report
"2017 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index: The Decline of the 'Swing Seat'" (David Wasserman, Ally Flinn)
- U.S. Senate
Senators of the 117th Congress
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "American Trust in Government Near 'Historic Lows'" (Washington Post)
- "Despite Record Turnout, 80 Million Americans Didn’t Vote. Here’s Why." (NPR)
- "How Money Affects Elections" (FiveThirtyEight)
- "The Decline of the 'Swing Seat'" (Cook Political Report)
- "The High Turnout in 2020 Wasn’t Good for American Democracy" (Washington Post)
- "America’s Problem Isn’t Too Little Democracy, It’s Too Much" (Politico)