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On The Trail: Trump, coronavirus fuel unprecedented voter enthusiasm

Americans bored during lockdowns or anxious about the spreading coronavirus and the consequential health and economic damage it is causing are turning in droves to a new hobby: politics.

Across the country, viewers are tuning in to cable news networks at record levels. Newspaper websites are reporting massive spikes in online traffic. And voters are casting ballots at extraordinary levels.

Voters are also telling pollsters they are more excited and enthusiastic about casting a ballot in this year’s presidential contest than they have been in prior years. In fact, they are so excited that pollsters have been surprised at how easy it has become to conduct public opinion surveys.

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Even before the pandemic struck, interest in this year’s elections was up across the board, driven largely by extreme support for or opposition to the most polarizing president in modern history. A CNN poll conducted last month found 63 percent of voters calling themselves extremely or very enthusiastic about November's presidential contest. 

Three-quarters of those who approve of President TrumpDonald TrumpFBI says California extremist may have targeted Newsom House Democrat touts resolution to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene from Congress Facebook to dial back political content on platform MORE’s job performance are extremely or very enthusiastic, and two-thirds of those who disapprove say the same. Sixty percent of the youngest voters, almost 60 percent of people of color and three-quarters of both Democrats and Republicans put themselves in the highly enthusiastic category.

Voter enthusiasm tends to build as an election gets closer. But historical trends show enthusiasm this year is already at levels previously recorded only days before a presidential contest — about the same number of voters were so enthusiastic just before both the 2012 and 2008 elections, according to past CNN polls. 

Enthusiasm this year already outpaces the glum 46 percent who called themselves very or extremely enthusiastic just before the 2016 election, when both Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHouse Democrat touts resolution to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene from Congress Hillary Clinton says Greene should 'be on a watch list,' not in Congress DOJ: Social media influencer charged with interference in 2016 election MORE were deeply unpopular.

A Monmouth University poll released Thursday found 40 percent of registered voters saying they are more enthusiastic about voting in this year's elections than in years past, while only 15 percent said they were less so. In August 2016, more people said they were less enthusiastic (31 percent) than more enthusiastic (21 percent). This year, members of both parties, people of all races, education and economic levels are many times more likely to say they are more enthusiastic than less.

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That excitement is translating into sky-high voter turnout in primaries across the country. 

In just the last few weeks, voters in Kentucky, Iowa, Colorado and Utah set new primary turnout records, driven by a surge in mail-in voting that in some cases overwhelmed election administrators. 

In Georgia, more than 2 million voters cast ballots in June 9 primary elections, shattering previous turnout records. More Democrats, almost 1.1 million, voted in a presidential primary that did not matter, months after former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat touts resolution to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene from Congress Science denialism in the new administration Jill Biden to offer input on helping reunite separated immigrant families: report MORE became the party's presumptive nominee, than voted in the 2008 Democratic contest when then-Sens. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer private equity executive launches bid for Virginia governor The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - White House targets climate change in today's executive orders Former Rep. Will Hurd announces book deal MORE and Hillary Clinton were at the height of their battle for the nomination.

There have been signs for months that November's presidential contest will set a modern-day record for the number of ballots cast. As far back as March, before the worst of the pandemic struck, voters in at least a dozen states cast more ballots in the Democratic primary than had done so in 2016. Turnout soared in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Maine and Minnesota.

While both Democrats and Republicans point to their voters showing up in primaries as an early sign of November’s success, some incumbents have discovered the downside of new voters turning up: Those voters may discover they are unhappy with incumbents who have for years coasted through low-turnout primary contests.

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In March, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) lost his primary to Marie Newman, a progressive challenger. Newman won a primary electorate that was almost 10 percent higher than the 2016 primary, when Lipinski fended off Newman's first challenge. 

After a first round of vote-counting last week, Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelState Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies How Congress dismissed women's empowerment 2020: A year in photos MORE (D-N.Y.) trailed another progressive challenger, former school principal Jamaal Bowman, by a 25-point margin. Final ballots won't be counted until the middle of next week, but Engel is not likely to overcome his deficit; Bowman has already rung up more votes, 30,709, than the total number of Democrats who voted in the district’s primary two years ago, 30,078.

This week, Rep. Scott TiptonScott R. TiptonDemocrats press to bar lawmakers from carrying guns in the Capitol House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Newly elected Colorado Republican wants to carry her gun in the Capitol: report MORE (R-Colo.) lost his bid for another term to Lauren Boebert, a restaurant owner and gun rights activist. More than 104,000 Republicans on Colorado's Western Slope cast ballots, 40 percent higher than the 2018 primary and almost twice as high as the 2016 primary, the last time Tipton faced a challenge from a fellow Republican.

Political strategists say those who have lost their seats in primaries this year serve as an important warning to other members of Congress: The age of the low-turnout primary and the low-information voter is over. 

Engel and Tipton had reputations for rarely returning to their districts. Lipinski's social conservatism was out of step with his Chicago-area district. Rep. Denver RigglemanDenver RigglemanFormer Republican congressman: 'Impeachment is necessary' Outgoing GOP congressman criticizes Hawley for fundraising off Electoral College challenge Virginia county Republicans condemn GOP congressman for considering vote for Biden MORE (R-Va.), who lost his seat in a Republican-only party convention, angered conservatives by officiating at a same-sex wedding. 

Behind the scenes, both Democrats and Republicans are reminding their members to pay attention to their newly active and interested constituents. Base voters already energized to vote for or against President Trump are casting a wary eye on incumbents they no longer believe serve their needs.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.