An edition of “The Point,” a daily email of political analysis from CNN, included an astute observation last week: President Trump, for all his faults, deserves all the credit for the higher-than-usual turnout in this year’s election.
“It’s been six decades since we’ve seen voter turnout higher than that of the 2020 election,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cilizza. “And you can thank Donald Trump — and all his divisiveness — for making sure voters in this country knew the stakes of voting (or not).”
In terms of the number of people who voted, it’s not too surprising that the 2020 election set a record. After all, the American population adds several million people each year, so it’s natural that the number of people who vote often rises compared to four years before.
But in terms of the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot this year, the numbers were sky-high. Current estimates say 61% of eligible voters participated, which is the highest since 1960, when 63.8% participated in the election that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon.
That 61% figure is a huge departure from the past four decades. A chart on the CNN website with the story about voter turnout indicates that, from 1972 through 2016, participation in presidential elections typically was in the mid-50% range.
Until this year, the largest turnout rate in recent elections was 2008, when Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, won his initial term. The lowest, below 50%, was in 1996, when another Democrat, Bill Clinton, won re-election.
Maybe the coronavirus-induced voting changes, such as mail-in ballots and no-excuse early voting in many states, played a role in this year’s high participation rate. But the most logical explanation is the president himself.
In 2016, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, 129 million people voted. This year, with Trump seeking a second term against Joe Biden, voter turnout is 149 million and counting.
That’s a 15% increase in the number of voters compared to four years ago. It just seems unlikely that the coronavirus itself compelled that much more participation.
Cilizza wrote that, in the runup to this year’s voting, it would be hard to find somebody without a strong opinion of Trump, whether positive or negative.
“Which is a bad thing when it comes to our increasing polarization and our growing inability to talk with people with whom we disagree on politics,” he added. “But which, it turns out, is a very, very good thing when it comes to voter turnout.”
To compare the 2020 and 2016 voting by parties, Democrats got 76.3 million this year, up by 10.4 million from four years ago. Republicans did well too: 71.6 million this year, up by 8.6 million. (The remaining 1 million or so votes this year were for third parties.)
Voters remain evenly divided. While Biden won the popular vote for the presidency (and almost certainly the electoral vote, too), Republicans did well in a number of other races. The key to future elections may be which party holds more of the new voters it found this year.