Election 2020 generated MASSIVE participation: Was it just a trend?

By Leroy Cleveland - April 24, 2021

Roughly two-thirds of eligible voters let their voice be heard in the 2020 U.S. Election, the highest participation level since 1900.

Moreover, by raw numbers and percentages, it was easily the most participant-heavy election in U.S. history. Let’s not forget women were denied the right to vote until 1920 while Jim Crow laws prevented ballot access to many Blacks until the 1950s or 60s.

Overall, a greater percentage of Americans voted in the 2020 election than in any other election since the country was founded in 1776.

Key Takeaways from the High Turnout

Rural America is hardcore Republican
The surge in voter participation wasn’t nearly as friendly to Democrats as many campaign experts had predicted such a rise would be.

Prior to the election, it was widely believed among Democratic and Republican strategists that heavier turnouts would favor Democrat candidates. After all, there are more registered Democrats. In addition, many surmised Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, who are predominately left-leaning but traditionally vote at lower rates than Whites, would exorcise the GOP in many close races if voter turnout was high.

Presumed Democratic gains were offset by rural America’s overwhelming support for the GOP. They kept former President Donald Trump competitive, likely saved a few Republican Senate seats, and unexpectedly flipped several Democratic seats in the House.

Donald Trump performed even better in rural America in 2020 than in 2016 when he won the presidency.

He lost because a) Joe Biden generated extraordinarily high participation and increased support in the cities and suburbs, and b) left-leaners and independents opted for third-party candidates at a much lower rate than in 2016, uniting behind Biden instead.

Nevertheless, sans Trump’s losing the presidency, it was a fine performance for Republicans who were expected to get blasted from the top of the ballot to the bottom.

Trump’s Loss is Conclusive
Due to the high volume of mail-in ballots this year, a presidential winner couldn’t be declared on Election Night. With the announcement of the winner coming four days after the election optics suggests an intensely close race.

It was competitive but not close.

In fact, Bush vs Gore (2000) and Bush vs Kerry (2004) were far closer. The difference in the popular vote margin for Biden vs Trump, about 7.1 million, exceeded the same for Obama vs Romney (2012). Biden would also finish with 74 more electoral votes than his opponent.

With mail-in voting made easy by most states (due to the Coronavirus pandemic), there were plenty of opportunities for people to partake in the election process and Americans did so in high numbers.

So, Will the Trend of Heavy Voter Turnout Continue?
Three things drove the rise in voter participation: Mail-in voting, Donald Trump’s divisiveness, and the level of political/cultural polarization. And it remains to be seen to what degree each of those factors impacted turnout.

Vote by mail
In 2020, a large group of states adopted vote-by-mail, drive-through, and 24-hour voting due to the pandemic. As a result, more people could vote early and from their living rooms and not have to deal with the chaos of waiting in lines on Election Day. It made things so much easier for everyone, such as people without transportation, seniors, and voters 18-29 who have struggled, historically, to partake in the voting process.

What will happen to the vote-by-mail process post-pandemic is anybody’s guess. However, it’s safe to say 2020 has probably left its mark on future elections for a long time because it’s unlikely election standards and policies will ever fully revert back to previous norms.

Donald Trump
He is arguably the most divisive mainstream politician in modern U.S. history – Donald Trump.

And for better or worse, he’s responsible for the public’s sharp increased interest in politics since 2015. Thanks to Trump, his famous Make America Great (MAGA) movement, and all of the controversy that’s been generated, just about everyone’s political passions have been aroused over the past 5 years.

Trump’s antics and polarizing ways have helped create millions of news addicts on all sides of the political spectrum. He undoubtedly brings out special emotions in folks; some of it is very positive and some very negative.

No one has gotten American voters more energized than Trump, and his many supporters and even more critics could hardly wait to cast their vote for or against him.

Will people be as motivated to vote with Trump not on the ticket?

It wouldn’t be uncommon to see a big drop-off in voter participation in 2022 and in 2024 (if Trump isn’t on the ticket). That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if the trend continues.

Even the 2018 midterms, where the presidency wasn’t at stake, saw an explosion in voter turnout. Half of eligible voters cast a ballot in what was the highest midterm turnout, percentage-wise, since 1912.

Was Trump most responsible for driving voter turnout in 2018 or was it the level of polarization in America? Even though Trump’s name wasn’t on any of the ballots he was very much in the backdrop so a case could be made for or against either.

A high level of polarization and Trump’s antics resulted in soaring cable news ratings, often at the expense of sports viewership. Fox Sports executive vice president and head of strategy, Michael Mulvilhill, explained it best via several tweets below.

His findings confirmed an increase in news attics who set aside watching their favorite sports teams to hone in on the daily news, which has been more captivating than the previous norm.

Let’s face it, because the news climate is so extraordinary these days, sports has become a little less relevant.

What can compete with Trump, COVID stats, the mask debate, racism, Me Too, Cancel Culture, Charlottesville, police shooting controversies, economic uncertainty, Obamacare repeal, Supreme Court nominations, protests, anti-protests, looting, militia plots to take over state governments, cries of unfounded widespread election fraud and more?

And it’s those kinds of topics and their immensity that will encourage widespread voting participation, with or without President Trump, should public anxiety continue.

Thus far, it remains to be seen how polarized the nation will be in the Biden presidency. If things simmer, look for voter participation to dip. However, because Biden will takeover a nation in turmoil, it’s unlikely we’ll see a considerable drop in voter participation for the 2022 midterms. In fact, don’t be surprised if participation eclipses 2018 levels.

Key questions, as they relate to maintaining the recent voting trends, are:

  • What will be the status of the pandemic in 2022 and 2024 and to what extent is vote by mail here to stay?
  • How politically active will Trump be as a former president?
  • Will Trump run in 2024?
  • How successful will Biden be in uniting the country?
  • And how will the country address racism and sexism, and the growing education and urban vs rural divides in politics?