Midterm elections could set another turnout record this year

After a Democratic lag, enthusiasm is now high in both parties

By Nathan L. Gonzales

In a rare moment of unity, Republicans and Democrats are poised to come together to set yet another turnout record in the 2022 elections.

Remember that the country set a modern record for turnout in a midterm election in 2018 with 50.1 percent and a modern record for turnout in a presidential election in 2020 with 66.8 percent, per statistics from the United States Election Project.

President Donald J. Trump deserves most of the credit for those records. He was the turnout engine for both Republicans and Democrats but obviously motivated each side to vote for conflicting reasons. Republicans wanted to support and defend Trump, while Democrats vehemently opposed him.

It can be easy to forget how extraordinary the past two election cycles have been. The 2018 turnout was 10 points higher than the average midterm turnout over the previous 40 years (39.4 percent), and 2020 turnout was 10 points higher than the average presidential turnout over the previous 40 years (56.5 percent). So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some reversion to the mean in 2022 without Trump in the Oval Office and without the pressure of a life-altering global pandemic.

But that doesn’t appear to be where we’re headed. Two enthusiastic parties are a key ingredient for record-breaking turnout, and that’s what is likely to happen again this November. 

Qualitatively, there’s no shortage of motivating factors for Republican voters. Whether sending a message to President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or the threat of socialism, Marxism, communism, critical race theory, urban crime, undocumented immigrants, Anthony Fauci, vaccine mandates, “woke” school boards or transgender athletes, there are plenty of things energizing Republicans.

For most of this election cycle, Democrats suffered from an enthusiasm gap. Trump’s defeat in 2020 sapped the urgency out of Democratic voters, many of whom became disillusioned with  how Biden and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill used their power. And that’s why it looked like the country was headed for a typical midterm election in which the president’s party loses a significant number of seats in Congress.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade galvanized Democratic voters. The Dobbs decision moved the threat of losing access to legal abortion from hypothetical to real, and subsequent actions by Republicans at the state level to restrict all access to legal abortion were a catalyst to Democrats closing the enthusiasm gap with the GOP. Thus, once again, there are two motivated parties less than seven weeks from Election Day.

Quantitatively, the country is poised to break the modern midterm turnout record just four years after setting it. In order to do that, we just have to be average.

Over the last century, the average difference in turnout between a presidential election and the subsequent midterm election has been about 16.4 points. So an average drop in turnout from 66.8 percent in 2020 would end up at 50.4 percent in 2022, just above the 50.1 percent mark in 2018.

The smallest difference between turnout in a midterm and a subsequent presidential election in modern history was the 10-point drop between the 2016 and 2018 elections. If the same dynamic happens again, the country would shatter the turnout record with a 56.8 percent showing. Those midterm turnout numbers haven’t been seen since President William McKinley’s second midterm election in 1900.

Since World War II, the largest recent drop in turnout from a presidential year to a midterm was 21.9 points, from 2012 to 2014. If that drop were imposed on this cycle, then turnout would be 44.9 percent — still the second-highest midterm turnout since 1968, with 2018 still holding the record.

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Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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