It’s a running joke among political junkies that the next presidential election is always the most important one ever. But you could make a pretty good case that 2020 is, in the words of Joe Biden, a BFD. The partisan divide is wider than ever, which means the results could have big consequences, particularly if one party or the other achieves a trifecta, the way Republicans did in 2016 and Democrats did in 2008. On certain key national challenges like climate change, the 2020 results may well determine whether the U.S. does much of anything at all before it’s too late to decide on a course of action. And then there’s the little matter of an astonishingly reckless president who acknowledges no limitations on his power and glory. If he’s reelected, he will very certainly assume a mandate for near-totalitarian measures if they strike his fancy.
It’s not surprising, then, that every indicator shows we are likely to see a presidential election next year where interest, enthusiasm, and participation reach levels unknown in recent history (no, turnout probably won’t match the 80 percent of the voting-eligible population that showed up in 1888, but then that was before the general adoption of the secret ballot, when voters could literally be herded to the polls and deployed en masse). This is a bit of a pattern in the Trump era, with its high turnout levels for many special elections and the highest turnout rates in any midterm since 1914.
While voter enthusiasm isn’t directly correlated to turnout (after all, any enthusiasm beyond what is necessary to get one to the polls is irrelevant unless it’s contagious), it obviously is a factor. And as new data from CNN shows, we’re seeing historic levels of enthusiasm right now. Currently 88 percent of registered voters responding to the poll in question are enthusiastic in varying degrees about voting in the 2020 presidential election; only 11 percent are not. Of the enthused super-majority, 47 percent describe themselves as extremely enthusiastic and 24 percent as very enthusiastic. Taking the “extremely” and “very” enthusiastic voters together, that’s 71 percent currently. In late October 2016, the comparable number was 46 percent (though in September 2015 it was a bit higher at 55 percent, indicating that a decent number of voters weren’t happy with the general-election options; usually enthusiasm goes up as an election approaches). At this point in the 2012 cycle, 51 percent of voters described themselves as “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic.
For me the recent benchmark of voter enthusiasm was the 2008 election that lifted Barack Obama to the presidency (I will never forget the citywide street celebration that broke out in Washington the minute he was forecast as the winner). Just before that election, 37 percent of registered voters said they were “extremely” enthusiastic about voting, with 32 percent “very” enthusiastic. That’s right: More than a year out, we’re at or above 2008 levels of voter enthusiasm. And the percentage of extremely enthusiastic folks is a lot higher.
So: Is all this excitement attributable to the Resistance getting people ready to eject our bizarre and unpopular president from the White House before he commits another four years’ worth of high crimes and misdemeanors? No, not really.
CNN’s cross-tabs break down the enthusiasm numbers in all sorts of ways, but here’s the one that matters most: 79 percent of registered voters who give Trump a positive job-approval rating are either “extremely” (53 percent) or “very” (26 percent) enthusiastic about voting in 2020. Among registered voters who disapprove of Trump, 66 percent are “extremely” (43 percent) or “very” (23 percent) enthused. All the other cross-tabs tell a similar story: White folks are more enthusiastic about voting than nonwhite folks; old folks are more psyched than young folks; Republicans are more whipped up than Democrats.
Does this mean Trump is cruising toward reelection? Of course not; the same CNN poll shows every Democratic candidate they asked about beating the incumbent by at least six points. Trump’s job-approval numbers remain stuck in the low 40s, where they have been his entire presidency — except for the times when they’ve been in the high 30s. What this does mean is that the MAGA coalition may punch above its demographic weight, even beyond the fact that MAGA people, being older and whiter than average, tend to vote at higher rates whether or not they are feeling enthusiastic. And it also means that after an extended period of time when the president was in the news every single day for thuggish if not criminal conduct, crude and mendacious tweets, and constant White House turmoil, his fans really want four more years of this, no matter what Mitt Romney thinks. Maybe that will change before next November, but no one should make bets on it.