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 John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation 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 ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  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 BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE became the party's presumptive nominee, than voted in the 2008 Democratic contest when then-Sens. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHearing for Twitter hack suspect Zoom-bombed by porn, rap music Read: Sally Yates testimony Michelle Obama says she is managing 'low-grade depression' 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 EngelEx-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets Progressives soaring after big primary night Carolyn Maloney defeats Suraj Patel to win New York primary: AP 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. TiptonProgressive Bowman ousts Engel in New York primary Hillicon Valley: QAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem | Supreme Court upholds regulation banning robocalls to cellphones | Foreign hackers take aim at homebound Americans | Uber acquires Postmates On The Trail: Trump, coronavirus fuel unprecedented voter enthusiasm 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 RigglemanDoctors boost Democrats' hopes to keep House Progressive Bowman ousts Engel in New York primary GOP lawmakers raise questions about WHO's coronavirus timeline 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.