With the 2018 elections coming to an end, it’s clear that voters set a modern record for turnout in a midterm. And there’s no reason to believe voters won’t set another record two years from now.
According to the United States Election Project, turnout this year was nearly 50 percent of the voting-eligible population, the highest for a midterm in more than a century.
President Donald Trump deserves virtually all of the credit for that mark. Voters turned out en masse to oppose him by voting for Democrats, while others showed up to support his GOP allies. That fundamental dynamic is unlikely to change when he presumably runs for re-election in 2020.
Going back to 1914 — the last midterm year when turnout surpassed 2018 — the record for turnout in a presidential cycle was 63.8 percent in 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon. For some comparison, turnout was 61.6 percent in 2008, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama mobilized a new coalition of Democratic voters, and 60.1 percent in 2016 when Trump mobilized a new coalition of Republicans.
Two years from now, turnout will likely set a new modern record that could dwarf previous ones.
Qualitatively, the bases of both parties should be at a fever pitch because of Trump and a potentially progressive Democratic nominee, with issues such as the Supreme Court, immigration, health care and the economy at the forefront of people’s minds. And independent voters may feel pressure, after four years, to take a stance for or against a polarizing president.
Quantitatively, the smallest difference between turnout in a midterm and a subsequent presidential election was 9 points between the 1918 and 1920 elections and the 1970 and 1972 elections. That would put 2020 turnout at a minimum of about 59 percent, just five points shy of the record.
Over the last century, the average difference in turnout between a midterm and a subsequent presidential election has been 16 points. That would pin 2020 turnout at about 66 percent, setting a new record. The largest difference was 23.4 points, from the 2014 midterm to the 2016 presidential. A similar dynamic would put 2020 turnout at a considerable 73 percent, which would rival 1900, when GOP President William McKinley faced down Democrat William Jennings Bryan in his winning re-election bid.
It’s too early to declare a winner in the 2020 presidential race, particularly without knowing the Democratic nominee. But as long as Trump is on the ballot and part of the conversation, expect another turnout record to be shattered.
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