On the menu: a deep dive into the predictions of massive turnout in this year’s elections, why the decline in the rate of increase of voter registration isn’t quite as big a deal as some believe, and why the GOP will rise or fall as Trump rises or falls this November.
Just How Many Americans Will Vote in 2020?
We can’t realistically compare early voting in this election year to past election years. The factor of the coronavirus pandemic, and so many voters’ desire to not stand in line outside or inside a polling place on November 3, makes this year just too different.
As of this morning, more than 13 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 elections. More than 1.7 million Floridians have voted already; 5.6 million voters requested absentee ballots. In 2016, 9.4 million Floridians cast ballots — 74 percent of the registered voters, 66 percent of the voting-age population. More than 1.1 million Californians have cast ballots already, and Michigan and New Jersey will probably surpass a million cast ballots in the next day or so.
Over at The Atlantic, Russell Berman writes, “There are ample reasons to think turnout might surge. Polling data and early-voting levels, along with turnout and registration numbers during the Trump era, all point to a surge at the polls unseen in decades, election experts say . . . the tens of millions of votes likely to be cast earlier than ever before could alleviate long lines at many polling places on Election Day and help the two parties focus their resources on turning out the hardest-to-reach voters.”
Our old friend Tim Alberta writes, “I’m not certain that we break the 60 percent barrier this year. But I am certain that the raw turnout of 2016 — 136,669,276 ballots cast for president — will be thumped in 2020.”
Keep in mind, four years ago, many political observers thought the stars had aligned for record-setting turnout. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party. Donald Trump was a larger-than-life celebrity, well known outside of the realm of politics. Even the nominees of the minor-parties, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, were running relatively high-profile efforts. The 2016 election had wild, crazy twists and turns such as the Access Hollywood tape, the letter from FBI director Jim Comey, and so on. It isn’t overstating it much to say partisans on both sides saw the stakes of the election as apocalyptic.
And the turnout in 2016 wasn’t bad — 138.8 million ballots cast, 136.7 million ballots cast for the highest office, 59.2 percent of the voting-eligible population, 54.7 percent of the voting-age population. (Yes, this means that more than 2 million Americans left their ballot blank in the presidential race.) When we measure what percentage of Americans turned out, one question is whether we measure the percentage of the voting-eligible population, or the percentage of voting-age population. Most analysts use the percentage of voting-age population, but that strikes me as less accurate. No one should be surprised that people who aren’t eligible to vote very rarely cast ballots. That’s the way it’s supposed to be!
There’s a surprisingly widespread perception that the turnout in 2016 was low, probably driven by articles written in November, before all the final counts were in. A narrative set in that Trump won because the turnout was so low, and because half the country didn’t vote, only a quarter of Americans selected Trump. (Of course, any president’s share of public support looks small when you limit him to the share of the overall voting-age-population that cast ballots for him. In 2012, Barack Obama won 51 percent of 54.9 percent of the voting age population, so about 27.9 percent of the voting-age population picked Obama. In Obama’s landslide victory four years earlier, he won 52.9 percent of 58.2 percent of the voting age population, so about 30 percent of the voting-age population picked Obama.)
The Census Bureau estimated that the percentage of the voting-age population that cast a ballot in 2016 was one percent higher than in 2012, but about two percentage points lower than in 2008. Note that each cycle, the United States adds a couple million more eligible voters to the pool as young adults turn 18 and legal immigrants becoming U.S. citizens. The Millennials are now all over 18, and if you count “Generation Z” as those born from 1997 to 2012, they represent those turning 18 to roughly 23 years old.
The Brennan Center studied the counts of registered voters in states where the count is updated each month and available on state election websites. They calculated the growth rate in registrations between January and August of 2016 and again between January and August of 2020 to account for baseline population differences in each of the states.
They write, “the first and most striking observation is that most — 17 of the 21 — report lower registration growth rates in 2020 than in 2016. On average, these 17 states have seen registrations decline by 38 percent this year.” I think that wording is easily misinterpreted; the number of registered voters isn’t down 38 percent; the rate of increase from January to August is down 38 percent compared to the rate of increase from January to August 2016.
One big reason to think that turnout will be big this year is because two years ago, 53 percent of the citizen voting-age population voted, generating the highest midterm turnout in four decades. Also note that we saw a similar pattern in some, but not all, off-year statewide elections during the Trump presidency. In 2017, Virginia saw the highest turnout in its gubernatorial election in two decades, Kentucky saw a surge of turnout in its 2019 gubernatorial election, and Louisiana saw about 400,000 more people vote in its runoff gubernatorial election compared to four years earlier. There are a few exceptions; New Jersey had record low turnout in its gubernatorial election in 2017.
You probably noticed that with the exception of the Senate races, the elections of 2017, 2018, and 2019 generally went badly for Republicans. There is no disputing that President Donald Trump is one of the most effective get-out-the-vote tools the Democratic Party has ever had.
In 2017, Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie won 1,175,731 votes, which was more votes than any other Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia history, including 12,208 more than Bob McDonnell won in his landslide victory in 2009. But Gillespie got thumped, 54 percent to 45 percent. You can argue that Trump helps increase GOP turnout as well. But he probably helps the Democrats more, at least among women, minorities, white-collar workers, Millennials and young voters, and suburbanites.
Trump dominates the news cycle, almost all day, almost every day, and he defines the image of the Republican Party. It is nearly impossible for a down-ticket GOP candidate to cultivate an image separate from Trump’s. In 2019, you could determine whether or not Republicans could keep a contested state legislative seat simply by seeing if the district had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 or not. This is a particularly ominous indicator for Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine, and Martha McSally in Arizona.
The enormous interest in the presidential race, in a pro-Trump/anti-Trump dichotomy, probably explains why we see pollsters asking about both the presidential race and key Senate races in swing states and finding significantly lower levels of support for the Senate candidates. There’s just not much oxygen left over for those down-ticket candidates, for good or for ill.
For example, this week Siena surveyed 614 likely voters in Michigan and found Joe Biden with 48 percent, Trump with 40 percent, Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen with 1 percent, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins with 1 percent, one percent volunteering “someone else”, and 8 percent said they didn’t know or refused.
When asked about the Senate race, 43 percent said they’re voting for incumbent Democrat Gary Peters, 42 percent said they’re voting for Republican John James, 1 percent said they were voting for Green Party nominee Marcia Squier, 1 percent volunteered, unprompted, they would not be voting for any Senate candidate (!), and 13 percent said they didn’t know.
Roughly 5 percent of respondents — about 30 people? — know how they’re voting in the presidential election but don’t know how they’ll vote in the Senate race. I suspect to some of them, “Gary Peters” and “John James” are just a quartet of first names.
As a full-time writer at National Review, I’m free to bring my decades of legal experience to bear to cover anything, and I have the time to go in depth. In the Barrett fight, that has paid dividends. In August, seeing the possibility that there might be a Supreme Court vacancy before the end of Donald Trump’s term, I dug into the history and laid out the case for why precedent supported filling the vacancy. Being ready to go with that research made a difference: As Rich Lowry noted on Monday and as Politico has reported, my essay and the statistics I developed have been cited by the White House and multiple senators in this controversy, including during these hearings. And knowing the history meant that I could put up a quick Corner post during the vice-presidential debate rebutting Kamala Harris’s fabricated history of Abraham Lincoln’s nomination of a new chief justice in 1864 — a post that was one of the most widely shared things on the site all year.
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