Lurking beneath the theory that high turnout would disadvantage Joe Biden is what we might call the “disappointed nonvoter thesis.” Scratch a political devotee and you’ll almost always find the same theory of turnout underpinning their plans: If only a candidate would say what I already think but louder. This reflects the disappointment that the very engaged have with their leaders: Practicing politicians have to appeal to mixed constituencies to win reelection or pass anything in Congress, and so they compromise their beliefs, sand down their edges, trim their ambitions.I got really sick of this in 2009-2010 when all the left-wing pundits were arguing that if Obama just jettisoned the moderates and came out "boldly" for a bigger stimulus and a more radical health care plan the power to do these things would somehow have materialized. But magic doesn't work, and it still takes 51 senators to pass a bill.
The politically engaged perennially argue that the way to mobilize the nonvoters is to offer a clearer choice, rather than a muddled echo. Under this theory, Bernie Sanders is the clear turnout candidate, as his sharper and more ambitious agenda can mobilize nonvoters who don’t think either party speaks for them. Conversely, Biden is the business-as-usual choice.
In general, this strategy disappoints. The most famous “choice, not an echo” candidate, Barry Goldwater, lost in a landslide. And he’s the rule, not the exception. Political scientists have long found that more ideologically extreme candidates face an electoral penalty.
And nonvoters, study after study shows, are less radical than political obsessives, not more so.
One of the most important lessons of politics is that other people do not secretly agree with you.