Love him or hate him, President Donald Trump made most Americans feel strongly about politics in a way no politician has in our lifetimes. Record numbers of Americans felt strongly favorable or unfavorable toward Trump during his time in office. (The strongly favorable and unfavorable was 71% in a Fox News poll last month, for instance.)
Trump’s presidency drove historic turnout and record donations to political campaigns in a country whose voters have often shown a disinterest in politics.
Twenty-four years ago, America’s political apathy seemed to reach a record high. Just 51.7% of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot, according to the US Elections Project. That was the lowest since 18-year-olds got the vote before the 1972 election. In raw numbers, a little more than 96 million voters decided to take part in that year’s presidential election.
The 2020 campaign, by comparison, had a little less than 160 million voters participate. With population growth, the US Elections Project estimates a turnout rate of 66.7% of the voting-eligible population.
Trump White House
It’s difficult to understate what an achievement this turnout rate is. A 66.7% turnout rate shattered the previous high since 18-year-old’s got the vote of 61.6% in 2008. (The 2008 campaign featured the election of the first Black presidential major party nominee in Barack Obama.) Turnout before 2020 never broke 140 million.
What’s amazing is how far back you have to go to beat 66.7% for a turnout rate in a presidential election. There wasn’t a higher turnout rate in either the 20th or 21st century.
It would be easy to think that the coronavirus pandemic caused record turnout. It may have played a role, though it’s been clear for more than a year that the 2020 dynamic was going to be unique.
I noted in April 2019 – long before the pandemic and before Democrats started voting in their primary – that record turnout was likely because a record number of voters said that they were extremely enthusiastic about voting in the 2020 election.
The record 2020 turnout followed record midterm turnout in 2018 – a record number where opinions of Trump were the driving factor for voters.
Half of the voter-eligible population turned out to vote in 2018. This 50.0% turnout rate was more than 13 points higher than in 2014 (36.7%). In raw numbers, nearly 120 million turned out in 2018 compared to only a little more than 80 million in 2014.
The 2018 turnout rate was by far the highest in a midterm since 18-year-olds got the vote. It had never previously topped 42% during this era.
Indeed, you have to go back more than 100 years (to 1914) to find higher turnout in a midterm election.
The strong feelings toward Trump also drove record donations to political candidates up and down the ballot.
Through November 30, 2020, the FEC reports that nearly $24 billion was raised by federal candidates, PACs and party committees during the 2020 election cycle. No other year comes anywhere close to that total. For comparison, a little more than $9 billion was raised by federal candidates, PACs and party committees during the 2016 election cycle.
Looking just at the presidential candidates, over $4 billion was taken in. Never before had more than $2 billion been raised. This cycle’s record occurred even as just one side had a competitive nomination fight, unlike, in 2008, when the previous record had been set. Keep in mind, though, that about $1 billion of this cycle’s money raised came from self-funder Michael Bloomberg.
In the House races, candidates raised $1.9 billion. Again, that’s a record for any cycle. The next highest total was in 2018 with Trump in the White House. During the midterm cycle, $1.7 billion was raised by House candidates.
Before 2018, the highest total raised was just a little bit more than $1.1 billion.
In the final major elections during Trump’s presidency, the fundraising train has shown no sign of stopping. The candidates for the Georgia Senate runoffs are raising ridiculous amounts. The Democrats alone are raising hundreds of millions of dollars.
The fact that candidates up and down the ballot were able to raise so much money is the encapsulation of what the Trump era is about. The interest in elections during the past four years isn’t just about Trump the individual. It’s about everything around Trump and everything that can strengthen or lessen the power he has.
What will be interesting to see is what happens from here. Without Trump in the White House will political interest drop? Or have we entered a new era where more Americans care about politics.
We’ll just have to wait and see.