We don’t know who Democrats will nominate to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. We don’t know what state Trump’s poll numbers will be in next year. Or how strong (or not) the economy will be. Or lots of other variables that will help to determine who the president will be come 2021.
But there is one BIG thing that we (almost certainly) know: The turnout for the 2020 election is going to be massive. Potentially record-setting massive.
Here’s why. In poll after poll, large percentages of voters say they are either “extremely” or “very” interested in the presidential race — numbers so high that they often match or exceed the amount of people who said the same immediately before past elections.
Take the new Fox News poll released over the weekend. In it, 60% of respondents said they were “extremely” interested in the 2020 contest, while 25% said they were “very” interested. Those numbers exceed the 82% who said they were extremely or very interested in the 2016 election in Fox’s final poll before that vote and the 82% who said the same in Fox’s last poll before the 2012 election. (Reminder: We are still a year away from the actual election!)
“I’ve been calling expected turnout in 2020 the storm of a century since it may rival the turnout rate for the 1908 election,” tweeted Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who runs the U.S. Elections Project, on Sunday. “Election officials need to make proper preparations.”
And it’s not just poll numbers that suggest McDonald is right. In the 2018 midterms, more than 53% of eligible voters cast ballots — a stunning increase from the previous midterms, in 2014, when just 42% did so. It was the highest midterm turnout in decades — and the largest number of raw votes (118 million) ever cast.
Tuesday will be another real-world test of the level of voter interest at large in the country. Virginia, a key swing state, will hold elections with control of the state House and Senate up for grabs, while Kentucky and Mississippi hold governor’s races. High turnout — especially in Virginia — would be yet another sign that we are headed for McDonald’s prediction of “storm of the century” turnout in 2020.
The mark that 2020 would have to beat is, as McDonald noted, 1908, when 65.7% of eligible voters voted. Few elections of more recent vintage have come close to that mark, with 60.1% turnout in 2016 and 58.6% in 2012. Since the 1972 election, the first in which the voting age was dropped from 21 to 18, the highest turnout in a presidential election was in 2008, when 61.6% of voting-eligible citizens cast ballots. Every indication is that 2020 will smash that record and could approach the highest turnout ever.
The Point: It’s not entirely clear who a record turnout benefits — although, in theory, it should help Democrats, who depend more on less reliable voters like younger people and minority voters.