In 1986, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared, “If everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” But for decades, the consensus among scholars and journalists has been the opposite. In their seminal 1980 study on the question, using data from 1972, political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone argued that “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” In 1999, Wolfinger and his colleague Benjamin Highton again came to the same conclusion: “Outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” Their argument rested upon the fact that polling data did not show large differences in opinions on most issues between those who voted and those who did not. However, a growing literature both within the United States and internationally suggests that, in fact, policy would change rather dramatically if everyone voted. Does this mean that Galbraith was right all along? Not exactly. The reason for the recent shift in the findings is not that the early studies were wrong, but that the preferences of voters and nonvoters are becoming increasingly divergent.
In a paper published in 2007 and later expanded into a 2013 book,Who Votes Now, political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that wide gaps between voters and nonvoters have opened up when it comes to class-based issues. They argued further that the seeds of these differences were apparent in earlier data, but Wolfinger and Rosenstone overlooked the gaps by focusing on broad ideological labels (liberal or conservative) rather than specific policies. Voters, Leighley and Nagler found, are more economically conservative; whereas non-voters favor more robust unions and more government spending on things like health insurance and public schools.
Other data collected on the national and state level support Leighley and Nagler’s thesis. A 2012 Pew survey found that likely voters were split 47 percent to 47 percent between Obama and Romney while non-voters preferred Obama 59 percent to 24 percent, a 35 point margin. A 2006 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study found that non-voters were more likely to support higher taxes and more government-funded services. They were also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes), dislike then–Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and support affordable housing.