Both major parties have now concluded their national conventions. Traditionally, this is when most Americans actually begin paying attention to politics. This marks the point when what may have been a cursory delving into the upcoming election gels into a closer examination of the candidates, their positions and their histories among the general population. Everything up to this point has been debated, argued and bandied about by only the most politically active people in the country.
As a data point, consider this. In the primary elections, approximately 57.6 million people voted. That was less than 29% of eligible voters. If turnout rates simply match those of 2012, when 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot, that would mean another 57.6 million people voting. If turnout is closer to the 63% from 2008, it would mean an additional 67.5 million voters. And if turnout is the same as the last time primary participation reached as high as this year, in 1960? In 1960, 31% of eligible voters cast a primary ballot* and 67% one in the general election. An equivalent turnout this year would mean an additional 75.4 million votes cast in November.
What all of those numbers mean is this: at best, only half of the people who are going to vote this November have actually paid enough attention to this point to have participated in the electoral process. Each candidate has been able to play their base, solidify their standing and not worry too much about attracting the votes of the rest of the country. But with the close of the conventions, that changes.
What we do have is a clearer idea of what each party intends as it’s core message for the fall campaign. For the Republicans, the message is the country is hopelessly fouled up, and only Donald Trump can save us from ourselves. The Democrats message is that things aren’t really that bad and we need the experienced hand of Hillary Clinton at the nation’s tiller.
But this year also features an electoral monkey wrench unheard of in prior contests. Both nominees are almost universally disliked, distrusted and flat-out repulsive to most of the electorate. How that plays out, in terms of messaging and voter turnout this fall, remains to be seen. It also presents third party candidates an opening unseen since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose over a century ago. Indeed, it is completely possible that a third party candidate could garner Electoral College votes for the first time since 1912.
The only thing certain about this year’s election is that these factors will create a race unique to our time. Prior models will almost certainly prove worthless to pundits and political scientists alike. The only relatively sure thing about this year is, it will be fascinating to watch and take part in the process.
*Note: The primary system was much different in 1960, as there were only 14 Democratic and 13 Republican primary contests held.