The New Voter

The New Voter

This article, from the September 8, 1904, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on presidential politics, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


This article orginally appeared in the September 8, 1908, issue.

The New Voter

This is the trying season for the first voter. Every self-respecting newspaper of either party thinks it a duty now to deliver to him a few appropriate words of warning and exhortation. In phrases which bring back only too vividly the baccalaureate addresses of an earlier season, he is reminded of the great responsibility that is his when he enters the polling-booth. Rival managers try to organize him into clubs, his morning mail begins to be filled with badly printed speeches under the caption, “Part of Congressional Record–Free,” while the American Protective Tariff League, taking personal charge of him at once, tries gently to lead him beside the still waters of Dingleyism. The ingenuous young man naturally begins to regard himself as a prominent citizen.

½: ½ 1/4: ¼ 3/4: ¾

So he is, in fact. His vote determines not only the remote, but the immediate, future of the country. In practically every election since the era of good feeling, the men who never cast a Presidential vote before have held the balance of power. It is computed from actuarial tables that approximately one-sixth of the national electorate is renewed in each four-year period between Presidential elections. When so many factors are liable to affect the total vote, the conclusions on this basis are necessarily rough but it may he assumed that approximately 16 per cent. of the voters who choose between Parker and Roosevelt this fall did not have the chance to vote for McKinley or Bryan, while about 5 per cent. have never before voted at all.

The way to realize the importance of this 5 per cent. is to look at the proportion of voters who must be won over in each of the States necessary for a Democratic victory. Taking the total vote of 1900 in the States carried by McKinley as a basis, a change of 1 ½ per cent. would carry Utah for the Democrats, 2 ½ per cent. would carry Indiana and Nebraska, 3 per cent. Maryland, 3½ per cent. Kansas and Ohio, and 4 ½ per cent. Illinois. Added to the votes of the State carried by Bryan in 1900, this makes on the new apportionment, 259 electoral votes, or 20 more than is necessary to elect. Changed political conditions make Kansas and Ohio, at least, far more strongly Republican at present than these percentages would indicate, but a change of 4½ per cent: would add Delaware to the list, and 5 per cent. would carry New York and West Virginia, making 308 electoral votes. Thus in no State which is fighting-ground this year, except Wisconsin, does the per centage of votes which the Democrats need to win over exceed the probable percentage of voters who have come of age since the last election, though about half of the latter are presumably of Democratic antecedents and will merely fill the gaps in that party’s ranks.

This calculation uses the total vote as a denominator. Figuring from the Republican vote alone, the importance of the new voters is just as clearly shown. Considering the well-known views of the head of the Administration, it is safe to assume that the rate of increase in Republican families is at least as great as the general average. Thus, the places of some 16 per cent. of the men who voted for McKinley in 1900 will be filled by new men, and about 5 per cent. by first voters. Now the Democrats must win over 2 ½ per cent. of the Republican vote in the last election to carry Utah, 3 ½ per cent. for Nebraska, 4 per cent. for Indiana, 5 ½ per cent. for Maryland, 6 ½ for Kansas and Ohio, 8 for Illinois, 8 ½ for Delaware, and 9 for New York and West Virginia. Experience shows that the shift of votes between elections, while very different in amount in different states, is generally in the same direction. Taking the country over, if the Democrats can make 32 converts among every 400 Republicans, they will carry enough States to win. And out of every such group of 400 presumptive Republicans there will be this year more than 30 who have never voted in a Presidential election, and about 20 who have never voted at all. This is the new voter’s status in a nutshell.

There has been much speculation as to the probable disposition of the one-sixth of the electorate which has come on the stage since 1900. Harper’s Weekly, in this connection, has offered the suggestion that, while Gold Democrats who voted for McKinley in 1896 and 1900 may return to their old allegiance this year, their sons, who started their political life by voting the Republican ticket, will stick to it. It is easy, argues that journal, to influence a boy’s mind in the years just preceding his majority. but hard to change him back again after he has reached man’s estate. Whatever force this ingenious theory may have, it applies less to the “brand new” voters than to those who cast ballots in local or Congressional elections in 1901, 1902, and 1903. The little family drama, half a million times reënacted, on which the theory of parental influence is based, has been somewhat modified during its long run. The twenty-four-year old son of a Gold Democrat left his father’s guardianship, let us say, at a time when that father felt so strongly the momentary danger of his party’s leadership that he had for a second time voted against the party of his choice. The twenty-one-year-old son, however, passed from under parental control at a time when the parent realized that the curse was off and was prepared to resume his old associations. It is risky to decide elections in advance by inferring what has happened at the voter’s fireside, but if speculation is to be indulged in along that line it does not all point one way.

One thing, however, it is safe to assume: The voters who have grown up since the two campaigns in which free silver figured, come they of Republican or Democratic antecedents, are the last men to be frightened by the efforts of Roosevelt’s managers to raise up again the bogies of those years.

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