President Donald Trump solved a problem that no other president before him could: Getting people to vote in a midterm election.
Whether they were voting for or against his agenda, it is now clear that voters turned out in record numbers in 2018. Professor Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, who is a guru of sorts on turnout, estimates that approximately 118 million people turned out to vote. He further calculates that to be 50.1% turnout of the voting eligible population.
That percentage is stunning when compared to other midterms that have occurred since 18- to 20-year-olds got the right to vote in 1971 through the 26th Amendment. The average turnout in midterms from 1974 to 2014 was just 39.4%. This year’s turnout looks to be 11 points higher.
More than that, the turnout in midterms had previously been fairly consistent. It never dropped below 36.7% or rose above 42%. This year’s turnout was 8 points higher than the previous ceiling.
If we look only at the raw number, remember that turnout in the 2014 midterm was only a little more than 83 million. This year, about 35 million more people turned out to vote.
The turnout is even more amazing is when you expand out the timeframe. The 50.1% turnout is higher than for any midterm in the last 100 years. This despite the fact that many of those elections took place when those under 21 were not eligible to vote. Remember, those younger than 21 are the least likely to vote, so you’d expect that the the turnout rate of eligible voters would have been higher before the youngest were eligible (in years such as 2018).
Indeed, the turnout in 2018 is actually more comparable to presidential elections than midterms. The 50.1% turnout is closer to the average presidential turnout (56.5%) than midterm turnout (39.4%) since the 26th Amendment was enacted and it nearly exceeds the turnout in the 1988 election (52.8%) and 1996 election (51.7%).
Now you might be wondering which side benefited from the high 2018 turnout. That’s not as clear as you might think. It will become clearer through examination of voter files in the coming months.
For now, we do know from pre-election polling that Democrats were generally doing as well among registered voters as they were among likely voters. That’s very different from 2010 or 2014, when Democrats were doing considerably worse among likely voters than among all registered voters. So higher Democratic turnout in 2018 was certainly beneficial to Democrats.
An examination of 2018 turnout patterns by congressional district compared to 2016 suggests that turnout fell the most in areas in which fewer people have college degrees and in which more people live in rural areas. Again, both of those would have been good for Democrats.
Yet, it’s also conceivable that Democrats might have done better if turnout was lower. We saw in a number of the special elections in 2017 and 2018 this exact phenomenon taking place. Democrats scored surprisingly well in special elections with low turnout such as Kansas’ 4th district and South Carolina’s 5th district. When turnout went up in the midterm election, Republicans regained their usual dominance in those districts.
When looking at how well House Democrats did compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016, the difference across districts between the Democrats’ performance in 2018 vs. Clinton in 2016 is not correlated by how high turnout was.
What does seem likely from pre-election polling is that the increase in turnout overall was Trump driven. According to Gallup and the Pew Research Center, 60% of voters said said their vote was intended to send a message to the President (in this case Trump). That’s higher than in any midterm election since 1982 (when the question was first asked).
With Trump likely to be on the ballot in 2020, don’t be surprised if that election also features high turnout. Like for 2018, it’s not clear who high turnout might benefit in 2020. It’s really a matter of who turns out.
If turnout recovers in rural areas, Republicans could benefit. Still, it should be pointed out that Clinton suffered from low turnout among key groups in the 2016 election. If all registered voters had turned out to vote in 2016, Clinton likely would have won the election. Democrats would no doubt have been happy about that.