Census: Midterm turnout surge fueled by core Dem voters

Census: Midterm turnout surge fueled by core Dem voters
© Greg Nash

The highest-turnout midterm election in more than a century was driven by a surge of voters who ordinarily sit out those contests and who disproportionately favor Democratic candidates.

While turnout was up across the board, it rose most dramatically among groups that did not participate very much in the 2014 midterm elections — to the benefit of Democrats, who took back the House majority.

The new U.S. Census Bureau report shows 53.4 percent of Americans cast ballots in the midterm elections, the highest level of participation since 1914 — an election held before women won the right to vote.

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More than a third of those between the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot, up from just one in five four years ago. More than half of African American voters cast a ballot, up 10 points, and Hispanic and Asian American turnout rose by 13 percentage points.

“Whenever you see a higher turnout election, everyone’s turnout increases, but usually what you see is groups that have lower turnout rates have relatively higher increases than groups that already participate at high levels,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who studies voter turnout.

Indeed, turnout rose among groups that have become President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE’s core constituencies: Participation among those who have not received a high school diploma increased by 5 percentage points, and more than half of rural Americans showed up to vote, a nearly 8 percentage point increase.

But they were swamped by voters in big cities, whose turnout rose by 13 points, and those who have attained advanced degrees, up 12 points. Nearly three quarters of voters with an advanced degree, and almost two-thirds of those with a college degree, cast a ballot.

“Turnout increased much more in the segments most opposed to Trump — young adults, women, the more educated, and central city residents. Turnout increased the least in the segments most supportive of Trump — men, older adults, the less educated, and non-metro residents,” said Cheryl Russell, a demographer who authors the Demo Memo blog.

So many nonwhite voters turned out that the electorate was likely more diverse than even the 2016 presidential contest, McDonald said.

“In a lower turnout midterm election we usually see the electorate get whiter,” he said.

Democrats gained 40 seats in the House as well as seven governor’s mansions. Republicans increased their majority in the Senate by two seats, but were boosted by a map that had Democrats protecting more than twice as many seats — several of them in heavily rural states where Trump is popular.

Those voters in the Trump coalition who did not show up in the midterms, when Trump himself wasn’t on the ballot, are still likely to vote in 2020. Four years ago, Trump drove a surge of voter turnout especially among rural Americans who powered his wins in key states like Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan.

So many voters showed up to cast a ballot that turnout levels rival three presidential elections in the last century. Turnout likely surpassed presidential election levels in 1996, 1924 and 1920. 

The high turnout in the midterms dovetails with surveys showing voters are already fascinated by and excited for the 2020 presidential contest, portending a mammoth turnout likely to exceed the 60 percent who showed up in 2016. McDonald pointed to 1908, when nearly two-thirds of registered voters cast a ballot.

“We should see more young people and persons of color showing up to vote. That could have some implications for the presidential election because those are key constituencies for the Democrats,” McDonald said. “Trump’s supporters will show up to vote for him. They may not have showed up to vote for some other candidates when his name wasn’t on the ballot.”

A Fox News survey conducted last week found 52 percent of voters are extremely interested in the 2020 contest, a level on par with the number of voters who said they were interested in the 2016 contest just days before Election Day. Another quarter of voters said they were very interested. 

A CNN survey from last month showed nearly two-thirds of voters were extremely or very enthusiastic about the presidential contest, far higher than even some previous election years.