Disinterest and apathy are crushing it in the US elections right now

There’s more where they came from.
There’s more where they came from.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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This article was updated on March 25 to reflect the latest vote counts.

Donald Trump may dominate television and social media in the United States, but he’s not exactly crushing the electorate. Really, no one is.

In the 26 states that have held primary and caucus elections for both parties, Republicans have cast 20 million votes, and Democrats have cast 15.1 million. But there’s a third force that has once again dwarfed both of these numbers: the great American tradition of disinterest and apathy.

About 100 million eligible voters in these 26 states have opted out of the whole thing. (This excludes Iowa, which does not report Democratic vote counts.) Only about a quarter of the voting-age population, or 40% of registered voters, have turned up to the polls. This is true even though Republicans have turned out in record numbers this year.

Trump has, of course, still talked up the increased turnout, suggesting he’s responsible for expanding the party’s base. While he is indeed the frontrunner of the party pulling in those record numbers, with 38% of all Republican votes, the larger view is less impressive. The ballots cast for him account for just 9.4% of registered voters in these states, and only 5.7% of the voting-age population.

And although Trump’s share of the 20 million votes cast for Republicans has put him in the lead among his party, it hasn’t put him in the lead in terms of overall votes cast.

Even with a relatively low turnout among Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s voters outnumber Trump’s by more than a million. As Trump likes to point out, the disparity between his numbers and Clinton’s is affected by the number of opponents each candidate has had to face.

His point is that the number of candidates running for the Republican nomination has disproportionately fragmented the vote distribution. Early on, there were more than a dozen candidates getting votes that might have otherwise gone to Trump. That’s true, but the competitiveness created by the large group of Republican candidates is also what’s helped to drive the rise in turnout in the first place.

Trump has certainly contributed greatly to that competitiveness, and to the entertaining nature of the Republican race. In that way, it’s clear that his presence has contributed to the uptick in votes. Whether he’s benefiting from that increase or suffering from it, however, is less clear.

Still, what meaning can we really derive from a slight increase in turnout when it only amounts to a quarter of the electorate showing up to vote? Both the Republicans and the Democrats have failed to make an argument to the vast majority of eligible voters that sounds more compelling than doing nothing at all. Clinton is leading the vote count, but her 8.9 million voters account for just 10.9% of registered voters in the 26 states where elections have been held for both parties, and 6.6% of the voting-age population.

When we put all the numbers together, one thing we know for sure is that a lot of people support Trump. Another is that a lot of people support Clinton. A third is that a much larger group of people support ignoring the primary season entirely.