Research Supports the Airlift Path to Progress

Post by Jennifer Tomkins
Edited by Rachel Klein


Many cable news network pundits and journalists still like to posit that, in order to beat Trump and the Republicans, Democrats need to woo swing voters and “move to the center.” Well, times have changed and the center isn’t the end of the rainbow, as it frequently used to be. At Airlift, our fundraising strategy isn’t reliant on unreliable polls or traditional, stagnant ways of thinking about the “base.” The polls that fuel our mission show a modern, proven method for activating new progressive voters—and for winning elections.

After 2016, some researchers and political consultants looked deeper into the party’s challenges, finding that progressive political power results from building community support and involvement. Then, in 2018, as a nation we witnessed the result of engaging people who gave up on voting—or never developed the habit—because they believed the system and its politicians didn’t work for them.

Now, we’ve seen the road to reflective government runs through the heart of populations who were repeatedly overlooked—young voters, voters of color and working people whose interests have been ignored. A recent Pew Research Center survey, as reported by Phillip Bump in the Washington Post, connects the dots showing how these communities of non- and inactive voters are most critical for Democrats in 2020 and beyond. 

The Problem and the Promise of Non-Voters

We’ve all heard it anecdotally before, but we now have the data to know this claim is fact: those who didn’t vote in 2016 were as responsible for the outcome of the election as those who did. 

Who voted and who didn’t

  • ~30% of Americans who were eligible to vote opted not to do so. (This is a higher percentage of the potential electorate than those who did participate and voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.) 

  • ~Half of the non-voters were non-white and two-thirds were under age 50 (precisely the people who Airlift-funded grassroots groups target and engage).

Demographic profiles chart

Why this matters for Democrats

  • Demographic groups that preferred Trump were three times as likely to be a part of the voter pool than to be nonvoters. Whereas, among groups that preferred Clinton, individuals were about 50% more likely to be a bigger part of the non-voting community.

  • Those who would have voted Democratic were less likely to have actually voted than those who would have voted Republican.

  • People under 30 preferred Clinton by 30 points but a higher percentage of them were non-voters than voters. (Only 1 in 8 voters was in that age group.)

  • Black and Hispanic voters voted much more heavily Democratic than white voters, but they turned out less.

voters v nonvoters chart

It’s cold comfort that Clinton won the popular vote. By neglecting the Rust Belt and ignoring minorities, the Democrats lost and some would argue they deserved it. As Bump points out, “an increased turnout of under-30 voters in, say, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan could easily have changed the results of the history.” 

The Not-So-Secret Path to Victory: Turnout

To beat Republicans, Democrats and other progressives would be far better advised to galvanize non-voters and those who agree philosophically with them than to try to woo, say, disenchanted Republicans.  

Sean McElwee, co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress and researcher for Demos, wrote earlier this year about the increasingly strong consensus amongst political science researchers that the ability of campaigns to persuade is actually quite limited, whereas campaigns can effectively mobilize voters.

McElwee found that the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) dataset showed that only 34% of individuals who identify as Democrats voted in all three elections between 2012 and 2016, as well as 17% of Independents and 42% of Republicans. But, only 10% of Democrats voted for Trump and only 8% of Republicans voted for Clinton. This suggests that there is far more variation in turnout than in vote choice.

The ANES survey also validated turnout for the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections and showed that those who voted in all these elections tended to be more conservative than those who failed to vote:

  • 63% of individuals who voted in none of the three elections support taking action on economic inequality, compared to 50% among individuals who voted in all three. 

  • Among people of color earning less than $30,000 a year, 47% voted for Clinton, 6% voted for Trump, 2% voted for other, and 45% did not vote.

  • Among those non-voters of color, 82% would have preferred Clinton if they had voted and 16% Trump.

This all implies that if these non-voters could be turned into voters, they would vote for candidates who support progressive issues such as taking action on inequality. 

Hey, Non-voters, Here We Come

McElwee concludes that “Both the left wing of the Democratic Party and the broader party institutions should invest more time and energy in winning over non-voters of color. This must include both…eliminating white supremacist barriers to voting but also diversifying the consultancies, creating candidate pipelines and committing to a vision of multi-racial progressivism.”

Like we at Airlift shout from rooftops (and anywhere else we go): We can’t keep hunting down those mythical “swing voters”; only through getting non-voters to vote will we celebrate progressive victories in 2019, 2020 and beyond.




Rachel Klein