Of all the reasons Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, the most compelling (to me, at least) is that he sprang the upset because an awful lot of voters who didn’t really want the mogul to become president stayed home, voted for a minor-party candidate or even cast a “protest vote” for Trump on the theory that he could not possibly win. From that sound hypothesis has grown the somewhat more dubious postulate that in 2020, if turnout is high, the 45th president is toast. Part of the reason people instinctively believe this is that there are more Democratic than Republicans out there; in other words, an energized Democratic base is going to be larger than its GOP counterpart. But the more tangible rationale is probably a lot simpler: 2018 was a very high-turnout midterm, in which Democrats did well. So if turnout stays high, the donkeys will again romp, right?
Well, that’s plausible, but hardly a lead-pipe cinch, in part because 2018’s high turnout was in fact skewed positively toward Democrats, which may or may not happen again. Historically (and particularly in the previous two midterms in 2010 and 2014), midterm turnout patterns strongly favored Republicans because the older and whiter voters who leaned GOP were since time immemorial more likely to show up for non-presidential elections. In 2018, though, that pattern was turned on its head, as Louis Jacobson recently explained at the Cook Political Report:
In four states (Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota) Democratic gubernatorial vote totals in 2018 were more than 10 percent higher than the party’s showing in the presidential year of 2016. In six more, vote totals increased, but by less than 10 percent (Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico). And in 11 other states, Democratic votes for governor dropped by less than 10 percent from presidential levels (Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) …
In three states, gubernatorial votes for the GOP nominee increased over Trump’s total by more than 10 percent (Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont). In four others, GOP votes increased but by less than 10 percent (Arizona, California, Hawaii and Oregon). And in five states, GOP candidates dropped from presidential-year vote totals by less than 10 percent (Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin).
All told, then, Republicans saw gains or modest losses in 2018 in 12 states. However, the strongest showings came in blue states where the party had broken with the Trump-era pattern by running a moderate candidate with crossover appeal. Subtracting those states leaves about nine states in which the GOP gubernatorial nominee overperformed Trump or didn’t see a big fall-off.
The partisan gap in extremely high midterm turnout was even more notable, Jacobson found, in Senate races. In the most similar recent midterm, moreover, that in 2010, neither party beat presidential turnout levels in more than a few states.
So if Democrats can match those patterns in 2020, victory should be relatively easy. But another way to look at it is that Republicans may have a larger pool of presidential voters who stayed home in 2018 than do Democrats, which is unusual but hardly impossible. That is essentially what Nate Cohn found in a new analysis of what a high-turnout presidential election in 2020 might look like:
The voters who turned out in 2016, but stayed home in 2018, were relatively favorable to Mr. Trump, and they’re presumably more likely to join the electorate than those who turned out in neither election. In a high-turnout election, these Trump supporters could turn out at a higher rate than the more Democratic group of voters who didn’t vote in either election, potentially shifting the electorate toward the president.
Perhaps these midterm stay-at-homes are now alienated from Trump, and will either stay home again or flip to the Democratic candidate. But it’s not a sure thing, particularly if you look at the Electoral College map:
The danger for Democrats is that higher turnout would do little to help them in the Electoral College if it did not improve their position in the crucial Midwestern battlegrounds. Higher turnout could even help the president there, where an outsize number of white working-class voters who back the president stayed home in 2018, potentially creating a larger split between the national vote and the Electoral College in 2020 than in 2016.
This is a possibility echoed by another political data wizard, G. Elliott Morris, even though his own analysis in 2016 indicated that universal turnout among registered voters would have decisively tipped that election to Hillary Clinton:
The arguments over the identity of marginal voters and nonvoters could lead in various directions. But the one inescapable conclusion is that driving turnout upward by making the 2020 election a frenzied test of comparative “enthusiasm” is a dangerous game for Democrats, if it’s not supplemented by (1) a least some “swing voter” strategy, and (2) quieter turnout measures (e.g., voter registration drives, data-driven voter-targeting messages, or even traditional knock-and-drag GOTV efforts) that don’t run the risk of riling up both sides equally.
It’s certainly safe to say that Trump and his party are risking disaster by making every presidential utterance an outrage that at best excites his base as much as it infuriates Democrats. And since time immemorial, ideologues on both the left and the right have asserted as a matter of quasi-religious faith that some hidden majority favor their prescriptions, with tens of millions of citizens refusing to vote because the radicalism they crave has been withheld by Establishment centrists. In 2020, though, the stakes are higher than ever if Democrats are wrong about relying on the intensity of voter enthusiasm. It would be smart for them to have a backup plan.