What Will Turnout Look Like Without Trump?

AW
March 18, 2021

Trying to model the make-up of a midterm electorate is always a challenge. Figuring out which voters will be engaged, which ones will 'drop-off', and which ones will be newly added is critical to effective campaigning. 

From 1978 to 2010, midterm turnout was fairly static, ranging between 45.5 and 51.9 percent. For example, according to US Census data, 49.4 percent of the voting-age population turned out to vote in 1986. By 1990, turnout had dropped one-tenth of a percent to 49.3 percent.

In the last six years, however, mid-term turnout has been anything but steady. Turnout in the 2014 midterm hit a 70 year low (41.9 percent). Four years later, voter turnout in the 2018 midterms hit 53.4 percent—the highest in 100 years and an 11 point jump from 2014. 

However, there's a lot that voter turnout statistics can't capture. A high or low turnout won't tell you which party is favored to pick up seats next year. Democrats have won and lost in both low and high turnout out midterms. So have Republicans. Plus, regardless of how similar the percentage of eligible voters who voted is to the previous midterm, each year brings out a very different electorate. Or as Mike Podhorzer, a strategist at the AFL-CIO and a leader in data analytics for the progressive community, put it: "We consistently underestimate the share of votes coming from new voters, and ignore almost completely the significance of voters skipping elections. This churn in the voting electorate is why I say that voting electorates are 'never the same river twice.'" For example, using a demographic shorthand — like comparing Latino turnout in one year versus the next to give us a sense for how Democratic or Republican the electorate will be — assumes that those in the electorate today have similar ideologies and priorities as those in the previous election. 

So, what can we or should we expect to see in 2022? 

For the first time in four years, Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, nor will he be in the White House. Is that better for Democrats, who don't have to worry about a surge in "Trump only" voters? Or is this better for Republicans who can try to win back many of the suburban voters who ditched the party while Trump was in charge? 

What's also interesting about 2022 is that for the first time in 12-years, the person who sits in the White House does not enjoy a cult of personality. Barack Obama was the first Black president who motivated a generation of younger voters and voters of color. Donald Trump energized his cohort of voters — some of them former Obama voters — with his "Make America Great Again" appeal. Both could draw big crowds and celebrity endorsements. But, they could not transfer their 'coalition' to any other candidate — especially down-ballot candidates in the midterm elections. Despite Pres. Obama admonishment of supporters at his rallies ("don't boo, vote," he often told them), they failed to do that in midterms, which cost Democrats the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. President Trump’s post-election rallies in Georgia weren't effective in saving the Senate.  

President Biden, meanwhile, ran one of the most low-key (Republicans would call it under-scrutinized) elections in modern times. He didn't have a dance like Pete Buttigieg, nor was he as meme-able as Bernie Sanders. But, his lack of public adoration was the point. He portrayed himself as the antidote to Trump's "all-me-all-the-time" presidency.

But, while Biden may not produce the kind of intense adoration of his predecessors, he also doesn't enrage the other side as intensely as those previous presidents did. It's just as difficult to turn Biden into a clever meme as it is to caricature him as a dangerous figure. 

Democrats are optimistic that popular policy — like the recently passed American Rescue Plan — can drive opinions of the president and the party. But, recent polling suggests that may not be possible in our polarized environment. For example, a recent Des Moines Register poll found that while 57 percent of Iowans approve of the job President Biden was doing in addressing the pandemic, his overall job approval rating in the state was 10-points lower — at 47 percent. National polls from Marist, Pew and CNN show a similar disconnect. In the CNN survey, for example, while 61 percent approved of the American Rescue Plan, Biden's overall job approval rating was 51 percent — again 10-pts lower than the policy. 

Donald Trump's ability to capture media and popular culture attention is unparalleled. We don't know what happens when he is no longer the center of attention. Will the voters he energized (good and bad) remain engaged without him? And, what about the folks who may not have sat out in the last two elections? Could they be newly engaged (for or against) by a very different kind of president and his policies? 

Image credit: Anthony Behar/Sipa USA