WASHINGTON - Democrats had a good 2018 and new data released this week helps explain why. Last year’s midterms featured enormous turnout and it was especially high among groups that tend to favor Democratic candidates.
Census numbers from the Current Population Survey show spikes in 2018 turnout among young voters, highly educated voters and members of minority groups. And the big bumps have some Democrats excited about 2020, but their larger meaning going forward is far from clear.
Starting at the highest level, a lot of Americans voted last year.
The census data show 53.4 percent of the citizen voting age population voted in November of 2018. That number was 11.5 percentage points higher than the turnout in 2014 and it was the highest midterm turnout since at least 1978 according to the Census report.
But the real impact of the 2018 electorate can be seen when you compare turnout of particular groups of voters to the most recent midterm in 2014.
For instance, the number of young voters skyrocketed.
Voting was up across the board in 2018, compared to 2014, but turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds climbed to 35.6 percent in 2018 compared to 19.9 percent in 2014. That’s an increase of 15.7 percentage points.
The next highest increase after that came among those ages 30 to 44: their turnout climbed by 13.2 points. Among those 45-64 turnout climbed by just under 10 points and those 65 and older saw the smallest increase, climbing 6.7 points.
In other words, the younger the voting group, the bigger the increase in turnout. And 2018 exit polls showed voters under the age of 30 leaned Democratic by more than 30 percentage points.
Minority voters also saw big growth in their turnout.
The jumps were especially large with Hispanic and Asian voters. Those groups saw turnout climb by 13 points, larger than the turnout bump overall. And exit polls showed those groups voted heavily Democratic in 2018.
And there were notable increases in turnout among voters with higher levels of education.
Among voters who have logged time in a college classroom, the increase in turnout was 12 points or more. Among those with some college, the increase was 12.8 points. For those who have earned a bachelor’s degree, the increase was 12.5 points. And among those with an advanced degree, turnout was up 12 points.
The 2018 exit polls showed that all those voter groups leaned Democratic, some by large margins.
And added together those numbers have some Democrats excited about their chances in 2020. After all, the 2018 electorate gave their party a major win in the House – a net gain of 40 seats and a total margin of 8.6 percentage points overall in House races. If the party can get that kind of turnout again in 2020, it’s game, set and match, right?
Well, not exactly. As high as all those 2018 numbers were, they were still under the 2016 presidential turnout figures for every group – in some cases under by quite a lot.
Take voters ages 18-29, their turnout was up 15.7 points in 2018 compared to 2014. Impressive. But the 2018 turnout number was still more than 10 points below the group’s presidential turnout in 2016. Asian and Hispanic midterm turnout was still off of their presidential turnout numbers by more than 7 percentage points.
Those differences are not a huge surprise. Presidential election turnout is always higher than midterm turnout. But the numbers drive home the point that even if 2018 turnout was very positive for Democrats, it’s not clear what it means for 2020.
A few big questions will help determine the 2018 turnout impact.
First, what drove this huge boost in turnout for Democratic groups? Did the 2018 midterm elections activate new voters – primarily Democrats – who usually don’t vote, or did the election simply pull-in people who usually just vote in presidential races?
If the answer is the former, that is very good news for Democrats. If it’s the latter the turnout bumps may not mean much.
And second, what about the Trump factor? Remember, despite all the campaigning he did in 2018, President Donald Trump’s name was not on the ballot. It will be there in 2020. And if there is one lesson in politics over the last four years, having that name on a ballot matters.