Given voter registration spikes and widespread predictions that this year's turnout would shatter records, it's tempting to look at exit polls and ask: Where did all the voters go?
By one estimate Saturday, some 131.2 million Americans cast ballots for president this time around, or 61.6 percent of eligible voters. That's a high turnout, to be sure, and represents a 1.5-percentage-point increase over the 60.1 percent turnout rate of 2004, according to Michael McDonald, a professor of government at George Mason University who tracks voting.
But it's still below the 62.5 percent rate from 1968, and falls far short of the 65.7 percent record set in 1908 -- a record that earlier this year, McDonald suggested Americans just might approach.
Some have seized on the absence of more dramatic increases as evidence that this year's voter surge was just another overhyped media myth. A closer look at the data, however, suggests plenty of historic trends. Turnout increased most sharply for certain blocs -- especially 18-to-29-year-olds, African-Americans and Latinos. Turnout also surged more in certain regions of the country, such as the South. And there's evidence that some GOP voters simply stayed home -- driving down overall turnout.
"It is going to put a ceiling on your turnout if you only get one side to vote," said Peter Levine, director of Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE.
Among other explanations, GOP nominee John McCain does not appear to have put together as formidable a ground operation as George W. Bush did in 2004. Whereas 24 percent of voters told exit pollsters they had been contacted by the Bush campaign four years ago, only 18 percent said the same of McCain this year, noted McDonald. By contrast, 26 percent of voters said they'd heard from President-elect Barack Obama's campaign, the same percentage as reported contacts from Democratic nominee John Kerry's team four years ago.
"It looks as though the McCain campaign did not do as good job of doing voter mobilization as the Bush campaign did in 2004," McDonald said. "It might explain why Republican turnout seemed to be down in this election, particularly if we look at some of these battleground states."
Definitive turnout rates won't be available until next spring, when the Census Bureau releases its population survey data for 2008. That leaves analysts with exit polls, which show increases for various blocs only as a percentage of the overall voting population. For example, exit polls show that young voters (ages 18-29) increased their overall share of the vote from 17 percent of the population to 18 percent -- not a very impressive-sounding jump.
But the actual number of young people voting increased by 3.4 million to a total of 23 million, estimates CIRCLE, a turnout rate of 52 percent to 53 percent. While that's only a 4-5 percentage point increase over 2004, Levine noted, it's significant in part because Obama won this group by a 2-to-1 margin -- 66 percent to 32 percent. (By contrast, Kerry won 54 percent of voters under 30.)
"It's completely unprecedented," said Levine. "We have no reference point for that." The previous record for capturing the youth vote, he noted, was set in 1984 when 59 percent of young voters went for President Reagan. "The argument is that you can achieve a very lasting realignment by having a formative influence on new voters, as Reagan did," Levine added.
Some progressive analysts argue that just such a shift is now under way, and that much of this year's increase in turnout came from young people. Young voters now make up 18 percent of the electorate -- a larger share than the 16 percent represented by voters older than 65. For three consecutive elections, moreover, youth turnout has both increased and favored Democrats. Young people describe themselves as more racially tolerant and more supportive of activist government, the Pew Research Center reports.
"It's another indication that America went through a civic realignment in 2008," said Morley Winograd, a fellow with the progressive think tank and activist group NDN, and co-author of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics. Hispanic voters, too, have swung decisively to Democrats, NDN experts note, and increased their share of the electorate by 62 percent in Colorado, 50 percent in Nevada, and 28 percent in New Mexico.
The progressive group Project Vote, which works on voter registration and protection, reports that the total number of ballots cast went up by 22 percent among African-American voters; 16 percent among Latino voters; and 9 percent among 18-29-year-olds. The group's analysis is based on both exit polls and data from state and federal election administrators. Project Vote also reported a 1 percent decrease in ballots cast by white voters.
What changed in 2008 was not so much the raw numbers but "the composition of the voting public," said Project Vote executive director Michael Slater. "And I think that's profound. Because it has implications for how you govern going forward, and [for the election in] 2012."
UPDATED: The estimate of total voters in this year's election was updated Monday, Dec. 1.