WASHINGTON – Voter turnout will be the highest in decades, dwarfing recent presidential elections, experts predict. The only question dividing experts is how huge will it be. Will it be the largest since 1968, largest since 1960 or even, as one expert predicts, the largest in a century? Soaring early voting levels hint at a big turnout, but that could just be the same voters casting ballots earlier instead of more voters hitting the polls. Weather should generally be favorable, according to forecasts.
What early voting numbers mean and how much of the youth and Hispanic votes turn out are the big factors political scientists look at when trying to predict how many eligible Americans will vote.
Michael McDonald of George Mason University is so optimistic he's predicting the highest level in a century.
"We're going to definitely beat the turnout rate in 2004, the question is by how much," McDonald said. "We have a chance to beat the 1960 turnout rate."
"It's not just an election of a generation, it's an election of generations with an 's'," McDonald said Friday.
He's not alone. The dean of voting turnout predictions, Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, this week amped up his turnout forecast. Initially he said it would be around 2004 levels, but now he is looking at a turnout that would be the highest since 1960.
"It's driven by 90 percent of the American people thinking the country is on the wrong track," Gans said Friday. "The only question is how many Republicans are not going to show up."
MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky predicted the highest levels since 1968, which he said is still quite impressive given that the polls show this election is not that close and fewer people tend to vote when the race isn't tight.
The McCain campaign released a strategy memo earlier this week, saying "turnout is going to go through the roof," and predicted that more than 130 million people would vote. And Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on Friday said, "we think turnout is going to be higher than that" but wouldn't give a number. Four years ago, 122.3 million people voted for president.
Calculating turnout rates isn't uniform. McDonald bases his turnout calculations on eligible voters, not just those over 18 and he subtracts felons and foreigners and others. Other people have different calculations for eligible voters; some experts just use the percent of the voting age population, regardless of eligibility.
McDonald predicts 64 percent of the eligible voters will cast ballots. That's more than 2004's 60.1 percent and a hair above 1960's post World War II high of 63.8 percent. The high for the 20th Century, using McDonald's calculations, was 65.7 percent in 1908 when William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan.
Record heavy early voting — people lining up to vote early in Florida and elsewhere, Georgia getting more than twice the early votes it did in 2004 — is one key factor, McDonald said. Democrats are voting in person earlier than Republicans, he said.
Gans isn't swayed by the number of early voters, but their enthusiasm and willingness to brave long lines to vote early "indicates a very high motivation." And that along with increased voter registration made him up his forecast.
Other factors pushing forecasts up include high voting in the primaries, record donations by small contributors, and general interest in the race, McDonald said. Dan Schnur, head of the University of Southern California's Institute of Politics, points to record television ratings for nominating conventions that offered no suspense.
Indications are that turnout by African-Americans will increase by about 20 percent, said MIT and Harvard political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere.
The only bad weather forecast is rain in the Pacific Northwest and along a small stretch of Southeast coast; McDonald didn't think that would matter much.
The only dampening factors are the youth vote, which hasn't shown much in early voting, and as the race looks less close, some people may stay home, experts said.