Brace for a Voter-Turnout Tsunami
Even with a surge in overall participation, white working-class voters could still remain decisive in the 2020 election.
Ronald Brownstein | June 13, 2019
Signs are growing that voter turnout in 2020 could reach the highest levels in decades—if not the highest in the past century—with a surge of new voters potentially producing the most diverse electorate in American history.
But paradoxically, that surge may not dislodge the central role of the predominantly white and heavily working-class voters who tipped the three Rust Belt states that decided 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Even amid a tide of new participation, those same voters could remain the tipping point of the 2020 election.
With Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency stirring such strong emotions among both supporters and opponents, strategists in both parties and academic experts are now bracing for what Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in voting behavior, recently called “a voter turnout storm of a century in 2020.”
In a recent paper, the Democratic voter-targeting firm Catalist projected that about 156 million people could vote in 2020, an enormous increase from the 139 million who cast ballots in 2016. Likewise, Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, recently forecast that the 2020 contest could produce a massive turnout that is also unprecedentedly diverse.
“I think we are heading for a record presidential turnout at least in the modern era, and by that I mean since the franchise went to 18-year-olds,” in 1972, says Glen Bolger, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “And I mean not only in total numbers [but also] in terms of the percentage of eligible voters [who turn out]. The emotion behind politics … is sky-high, and I don’t think it’s just on one side. I think it’s on both sides.”
McDonald thinks the turnout surge in 2020 could shatter even older records, estimating that as many as two-thirds of eligible voters may vote next year. If that happens, it would represent the highest presidential-year turnout since 1908, when 65.7 percent of eligible Americans cast a ballot, according to McDonald’s figures. Since 18-year-olds were granted the vote, the highest showing was the 61.6 percent of eligible voters who showed up in 2008, leading to Barack Obama’s victory. And since World War II, the highest turnout level came in 1960, with John F. Kennedy’s win, when 63.8 percent of voters participated.
Experts on both sides point to an array of indicators that signal turnout may reach new heights next year. Signs of political interest, from the number of small-donor contributions made to presidential candidates to the viewership for cable news, are all spiking. In polls, very high shares of Americans already say they are paying a lot of attention to the 2020 presidential race.
But the clearest sign that high turnout may be approaching in 2020 is that it already arrived in 2018. In last year’s midterm, nearly 120 million people voted, about 35 million more than in the previous midterm, in 2014, with 51 percent of eligible voters participating—a huge increase over the previous three midterms. The 2018 level represented the largest share of eligible voters to turn out in a midterm year since 1914, according to McDonald’s figures. Catalist estimated that about 14 million new voters who had not participated in 2016 turned out two years later, and they preferred Democrats by a roughly 20-percentage-point margin.
Yet one of the key questions for 2020 is whether Democrats will benefit as much from the likely expansion of the electorate. With Trump on the ballot directly, Republicans hope that 2020 will produce a surge not only in the younger and nonwhite voters who increased their participation in 2018, but also the non-college-educated whites at the foundation of the president’s support, who lagged last year.
The nature of the population eligible to vote is evolving in a way that should indeed help Democrats. McDonald estimates that the number of eligible voters increases by about 5 million each year, or about 20 million from one presidential election to the next. That increase predominantly flows from two sources: young people who turn 18 and immigrants who become citizens. Since people of color are now approaching a majority of the under-18 population—and also constitute most immigrants—McDonald and other experts believe it’s likely that minorities represent a majority of the people who have become eligible to vote since 2016.
The generational contrast in the eligible voting pool is also stark. States of Change, a nonpartisan project studying shifts in the electorate, projects that Millennials (born, according to the organization’s definition, from 1981 to 2000) will constitute 34.2 percent of eligible voters next year. Post-Millennials (born after 2000) will make up another 3.4 percent. That means those two groups combined will virtually equal the share of eligible voters composed of Baby Boomers (28.4 percent) and the Silent and Greatest Generations (another 9.4 percent).
These shifts have enormous implications because of the generational gulf in attitudes toward Trump and the parties more broadly. His approval rating has consistently lagged among the more racially diverse, socially tolerant younger generations. Though Trump and the GOP have shown some signs of weakness recently among seniors, he has generally polled much better among voters older than 50, in part because a much larger share of Americans in that cohort are white.
“The group of voters that is going to increase at the fastest rate [in 2020] is Millennials,” says Josh Schwerin, the communications director of Priorities USA, a leading Democratic super PAC that is already organizing in swing states for next year. “Donald Trump is at a horrible standing with them and doing nothing to help himself.”
But the change in the eligible-voter pool is only one factor in determining who actually votes in each election. It represents, in effect, the denominator in the equation; the numerator is how big a share of eligible voters in each group shows up. The effect of the growing number of eligible Millennials and minorities (particularly Latinos) has been blunted because their turnout has lagged behind that of older voters and white people—a dynamic that has especially affected Democrats in the diversifying Sun Belt states, where they have struggled to overturn years of Republican dominance.
In 2016, the Census calculated that almost two-thirds of eligible white voters cast a ballot. By contrast, African American turnout fell to 59 percent—a sharp decline from both of Barack Obama’s elections—and Latino turnout remained at typically modest levels, just below 48 percent. Young people stayed home, too: Only about 46 percent of eligible voters under 30 turned out, far below the participation among those 45 and older.
In 2018, though, those patterns altered. Turnout typically falls for all voter groups in midterm elections compared with the previous presidential race, but that falloff was much smaller than usual last year. Moreover, while turnout surged across virtually all groups, it increased most sharply among the voters who historically have participated at the lowest levels. For instance, the Census Bureau reported that turnout among voters under 30 last year jumped to about 36 percent of eligible voters, compared with just 20 percent in 2014. That still left young people far behind the turnout rate among seniors, about two-thirds of whom voted, but their rate of increase from the previous election was much greater. Similarly, the Census Bureau found that the turnout rate in 2018 increased more for Latinos and Asian Americans than it did for white people.
The most conspicuous exception to this pattern of greater gains for groups with lower participation was white working-class voters, a constituency that has become the backbone of the GOP coalition, especially under Trump. In recent elections, white working-class voters have turned out at a rate slightly above minorities’, but well below that of white voters with at least a four-year college degree. College-educated whites have been moving toward the Democrats in recent decades, a transition that has accelerated under Trump.
In 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations from census data, about 45 percent of eligible white people without a college degree voted. But while that was a roughly 12-point increase from their turnout rate in the previous midterm, both minorities and college-educated whites raised their participation by larger amounts—16 percent and 17 percent, respectively—and both groups broke toward the Democrats.
Experts like McDonald broadly expect young people and minorities to again increase their turnout more in 2020 than older people and white people will. “Everyone’s turnout tends to go up” in a surge election year, “but the increases predominantly come from the lower-turnout groups because they have more room to increase,” he says. If turnout is high in 2020 overall, “you would think … that these younger people, persons of color, lower-educated, lower-income people … are the people who are going to see the highest turnout increase of all the groups we observe.”
Schwerin, from Priorities USA, says his group also forecasts greater Millennial improvement in 2020 compared with older generations. But he warns that such an increase is hardly guaranteed, even under Trump. “We expect young people will be the group that grows the most,” he says. “But Trump does not solve the problem. It is important that Democrats are investing in time and resources in talking to communities we need to turn out. It’s not going to happen on its own; Trump alone is not going to do it.”
A major wild card for 2020 is how much blue-collar-white turnout might rebound after its disappointing showing in 2018—and whether Democrats can sustain the small but significant recovery they demonstrated with that group last fall. McDonald has calculated that the total number of eligible nonvoters in 2018 divided exactly in half between those working-class white people on one side, and minorities and white-collar white people on the other.
In relying as heavily on working-class white people as he does, Trump is pushing against a demographic current that has steadily run in the opposite direction for many years.
Data from States of Change show that over the past quarter-century, white voters without a college education have typically declined as a share of actual voters little by little over each four-year presidential cycle: They fell from 61 percent of voters in 1992 to 44 percent in 2016. Minority voters, meanwhile, have increased over those seven election cycles from 15 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2016. And college-educated whites have drifted up, from 24 percent in 1992 to 30 percent in 2016.
The 2016 election, however, was something of an anomaly for blue-collar white people. Partly because Trump inspired so many non-college-educated white voters to turn out—and partly because African American turnout skidded so badly—white working-class voters declined less than usual in 2016 as a share of the electorate, States of Change concluded. But in 2018, as turnout surged among minority and younger voters, non-college-educated whites suffered a much sharper decline: Compared with 2014, they fell by 4 to 5 percentage points as a share of the total vote, according to both Catalist’s estimates and McDonald’s analysis of census figures. That’s about double their average decline from one presidential election to the next over the past quarter-century.
Ruy Teixeira, a veteran liberal analyst and a co-founder of States of Change, believes it’s likely that in 2020 the decline in blue-collar white people’s share of the total vote could again push toward the high end of recent experience, shrinking by as much as 3 percentage points, to just over 40 percent. “I think if we do have a high-turnout election that builds on the trends we saw in 2018, you might see the white non-college share decline significantly more than it did in 2016,” Teixeira says.
Those changes pose obvious problems for Trump in winning the national popular vote. But they also present a challenge for Democrats, because these shifts are not evenly distributed among the states. The electorate is not diversifying nearly as fast in the three Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the Blue Wall—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states, for years to come, will remain older and whiter than the nation overall, meaning that to win them, Democrats have to run better with older, whiter voters than they do in most places.
And while the minority population is growing steadily in existing and emerging Sun Belt battlegrounds—such as Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and even Texas—Trump has demonstrated a formidable ability to offset that change by turning out older, rural, evangelical, and blue-collar white people in those places. In stark contrast to the national forecasts, Schwerin says Priorities USA projects that non-college-educated whites will represent a slightly larger share of the vote in the battleground states next time than they did in 2016.
Unless and until Democrats can tip some of the potential Sun Belt battlegrounds, particularly Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, the party can’t reach 270 Electoral College votes without recapturing some of the Rust Belt states least affected by demographic change.
Teixeira is one of many Democratic strategists who say the party’s top priority must remain regaining those Rust Belt states, because it cannot yet rely enough on the Sun Belt. “How can you possibly count on these states?” he says. “Democrats haven’t won Florida for a while. Arizona, they haven’t won in a million years. Georgia, Texas—are you kidding me? These are hard states. You cannot build a strategy around having to win those states.”
Chipping into Trump’s base of non-college-educated and rural white voters isn’t the only way for Democrats to win back the Rust Belt states he took in 2016: They could also theoretically recapture them by increasing turnout among young people and minorities, and converting more suburban white people. But in a 2020 election likely to be defined by a historic surge of new voters, many Democrats are resigned to facing the same old challenge of scratching out a few more votes in mostly white union halls and country diners across the Upper Midwest.