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Voter turnout will be key in 2016 presidential race

Forget about the issues, the policy statements and the position papers (if you can find them). The next president of the United States will win because he or she was able to inspire a majority of Americans to turn off their television sets, leave their homes and head to the polls. Turnout is the deciding factor in presidential elections.

In a recent study researchers asked a group of voters if they agreed or disagreed with a position taken by a politician. In half the cases, the voters were told that the politician was Donald Trump. The other half of the group were told that the politician was President Barack Obama. When Republican voters in the group were told that the issue was proposed by Trump, most of them agreed with the position. But when they were told that the exact same position was proposed by Obama, most of them disagreed with the position.

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To a lesser degree, Democrats agreed with the position when told it was from Obama and disagreed when told that the position was from Trump. This is the nature of politics in America today.

Of course, many Americans still vote for politicians because of their positions on specific issues. And sometimes a candidate's position can inspire people to vote against him or her. Trump's plan to deport millions of Hispanics, for example, might inspire Hispanics to get to the polls and vote in 2016.

President Obama inspired people to vote for him in 2008 and 2012. It was the higher-than-usual turnout by young people, women and minority voters that propelled him to — and kept him in — the White House. It doesn't take much because many Americans don't vote. Politicians just need an extra boost from core supporters, independent voters or specific minority groups to win.

Mitt Romney was uninspiring for many Republicans, but he managed to inspire Hispanic voters to the polls with his anti-immigration stances. Unfortunately for Romney, Hispanics were inspired to vote against him.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not inspiring Democrats or independent voters at this time. Yes, there are many people who are inspired by the thought of her becoming the first female president. But, thus far, she has been a boring candidate. Her primary competitor, Sen. Bernie Sanders, is both inspiring and interesting. As a result, his poll numbers are going up and Clinton's numbers are going down.

Sanders, however, might still be able to help Clinton if she ultimately becomes the Democratic nominee. His supporters will surely vote for her over Donald Trump or whomever the eventual GOP nominee happens to be. If Sanders inspires young people to register to vote, ultimately they will help increase the number of Democrats who vote, regardless of the nominee. The key for Democrats is to keep Sanders' supporters involved and inspired for another 14 months.

The same is true for the Republican Party. As much as the Republican establishment dislikes Donald Trump's success thus far, he is inspiring lots of GOP voters to get involved, attend rallies and make donations. Ultimately, regardless of who the GOP nominee is, this is good news for the GOP, especially given the seemingly boring nature of some of the establishment GOP candidates.

Trump's challenge, and the challenge for the Republican Party, is that Trump also inspires many people, such as Hispanics and women, to vote against him.

The trick for establishment candidates like Clinton or Gov. Jeb Bush is harnessing the interest and excitement built by new candidates like Sanders and Trump. The ultimate nominee of either party will need these voters. This is a significant challenge. Clinton might be too conservative for many of Sanders' supporters and Trump is unlikely to endorse anyone but himself.

One way that Clinton can secure Sanders' supporters is by adding him to her ticket if she were to secure the nomination. I don't know if any of the establishment GOP candidates would want Trump as a running mate. Of course, if Trump is the nominee, that will not be a concern.

The 2016 contest will be defined by turnout. The candidates still have 14 months to inspire voters positively or negatively.

Tom Zirpoli is program coordinator for the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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