The 2020 election was supposed to bring an avalanche of voters to the polls. Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest in a midterm election in at least 40 years. And interest in the 2020 election was at unprecedented levels as early as spring 2019. But now that voting is upon us, voter engagement so far seems pretty, well, normal. (Although, of course, the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. could affect turnout in unpredictable ways, too.)
There could still be historic turnout come November, but it hasn’t materialized so far in the primaries. In fact, in our analysis of 20 states for which we have full primary results,1 we’ve found that, while turnout has generally ticked up since 2016, it is still short of 2008, when a history-making contest between then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton electrified the Democratic electorate.
In the states that have voted so far, the 2020 turnout rate (among the voting eligible population) in the Democratic primary was a median of 3 points higher than it was in 2016 but 2 points lower than it was in 2008, according to data from the United States Elections Project (updated with the most recent 2020 election results as of March 16).2 There are a few states where turnout has been much higher, as you can see in the chart below, but that probably is due more to structural changes and differing electoral contexts than higher voter enthusiasm. Although the increases in some states, like Virginia, are big enough to still be notable, once you adjust for these factors, 2020 on the whole looks pretty unimpressive.
For instance, the state with the biggest turnout increase from 2016 to 2020 was Colorado (+19 percentage points), but that datapoint can be quickly explained away: Colorado is one of the three states we analyzed that switched from caucuses to a state-run primary. (As this data demonstrates, primaries generally have much higher voter turnout than caucuses.) The other two states that switched to state-run primaries, Minnesota (+13 points) and Idaho (+6 points), also saw big jumps in turnout from 2016.3
Colorado, Minnesota and Idaho were also among the only four states that significantly improved upon their 2008 turnout. As for the fourth state, Michigan, candidates did not bother competing in its 2008 “beauty contest” primary, in which there were no delegates awarded based on its results after the state was determined to have violated Democratic Party rules about how early it could vote. In other words, there were structural changes to the primary process in each of the four states that saw the biggest increases in voter turnout from 2008 to 2020. As a result, we can’t attribute these turnout differences to an uptick in voter enthusiasm alone.
The next several states with the biggest turnout increases over 2016 — Virginia (+8 points), Michigan (+5 points), Vermont (+4 points) and South Carolina (+4 points) — all host open primaries, meaning any registered voter could vote in the Democratic primary. The lack of a competitive Republican primary probably made a big difference in these states — compared with 2016, when hotly contested Democratic and Republican primaries were competing for voters, 2020 has just one such race.
There’s also the fact that some of these states have voted more Democratic since 2016 or 2008. The combination of this and an open primary might go a long way toward explaining why turnout increased so much in Virginia this year. Donald Trump’s presidency may have pushed some of the 40 percent of Virginia Republicans who cast ballots for Sen. Marco Rubio or former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the 2016 primary to vote Democratic this time around. Exit polls provide some grist for this theory: The Democratic electorate in Virginia was far less liberal in 2020, when 53 percent identified as very or somewhat liberal and 39 percent identified as moderate, than in 2016, when 68 percent were very or somewhat liberal and 29 percent were moderate.
Another factor that may explain Virginia’s gains in turnout is its large college-educated white population. For instance, in the predominantly white, college-educated suburbs of Falls Church, Arlington and Fairfax, the turnout rate (as a share of the citizen voting age population)4 increased by more than 18 percentage points.
This wasn’t unique to Virginia. In a regression analysis of county-level turnout in 15 states,5 we found that counties with a larger share of white college graduates6 saw bigger increases in Democratic turnout. These areas are generally located in more urban and suburban areas of the country and played a large role in delivering the suburbs to Democrats in 2018.
For example, in Iowa, the place where Democratic turnout increased the most was in the booming, high-income exurbs of Dallas County. In Michigan, Democratic turnout was up 11 points in Washtenaw County, also the most college-educated county in the state. In Tennessee, Williamson County, one of the richest counties in the U.S., saw its Democratic turnout rate double; this suburban Nashville county was the only jurisdiction in Tennessee that didn’t support Trump in the 2016 GOP primary. And notably, in Oklahoma, the lone state where Democratic turnout decreased from 2016 to 2020, the only two counties where it increased were Oklahoma County and Tulsa County, home of the state’s two biggest cities.
Most of these places also voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Sen. Bernie Sanders has claimed that he can win elections by expanding the size of the electorate, but there didn’t seem to be a relationship on the county level between increased turnout from 2016 and 2020 and increased support for Sanders. In a more granular analysis of Iowa and New Hampshire, The New York Times also found that turnout in precincts and municipalities where a majority of the population is between 18 and 24 years old — Sanders’s base — was virtually unchanged from 2016. Instead, participation spiked the most in areas won by former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Given that their voters were disproportionately college-educated white moderates, this jibes more with our theory that the places where turnout has increased the most in the 2020 Democratic primary are those where Trump-skeptical (ex-)Republicans are trying a new party on for size.
Something else the cities and counties above have in common is that all of them trended away from Republicans in 2016, compared with 2012. It’s possible that more primary voters pulling Democratic ballots in these areas is a sign that Democrats will continue to make inroads there in the 2020 general election. However, not every blue-trending area saw the same huge gains. For instance, 2020 turnout rose 3 points from 2016 in Texas; given that the Lone Star State conducts open primaries, it’s conspicuous that turnout did not increase by more. Either enthusiasm among the Democratic base is down from 2016, or fewer Republicans are crossing over than we might think. In sum, while the turnout patterns of the 2020 primaries are suggestive of how electoral coalitions could shift in the general election, the overall turnout numbers are still fairly underwhelming for Democrats.
Likhitha Butchireddygari and Laura Bronner contributed research.
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