In contrast to every predecessor, President Donald Trump has demonstrated abject hostility toward democratic norms and constitutional governance — from attacks on the courts and free speech, to attempts to interfere with an ongoing Justice Department investigation, to overt expressions of racism. He might have expected the constant turmoil and chaos, the incessant lies, to wear down voters, and indeed, Americans to some extent do suffer from Trump-driven angst, exhaustion and disgust. Nevertheless, we have argued that in response to Trump, we are experiencing a revival of participatory democracy, a new surge of active citizenship.
The latest Pew Research poll points to one compelling piece of evidence to substantiate that view:
“Americans appear to be more engaged with this year’s midterm elections than they typically are. Not only do about half of registered voters report being more enthusiastic than usual about voting, up from 40 percent in 2014, but turnout has surged in the 31 states that already have held their congressional primaries — particularly among Democrats.
“In those states, nearly 13.6 million people — or 10.1 percent of registered voters — have voted in Democratic primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of state election returns. By this point in the 2014 midterm election cycle, fewer than 7.4 million people — or 6 percent of registered voters — had cast ballots in Democratic House primaries. (The same 31 states have held primaries as by this date in 2014.)”
Even more dramatic, “The total number of votes cast in Democratic House primaries so far this year is 84 percent higher than the total for the equivalent point in 2014.” Democrats are running candidates in places they used to concede, and a slew of first-time candidates (further evidence of a democratic awakening) are running.
At the risk of being overly simplistic: If you have competitive races, voters will show up. Pew found that “340 House primaries have been contested by at least two candidates, versus 251 in 2014. Most of that increase has been on the Democratic side, with 81 more contested Democratic House primaries this year (203) than in 2014 (122). By contrast, there have been only eight more contested Republican House primaries so far this year (137) than at this point in 2014 (129).” Once people have shown up in the primaries, they’re much more likely to turn out in the general election.
The same turnout phenomenon is seen in races for the U.S. Senate and for governorships:
“So far this year, around 16.8 million people have voted in 17 states’ regular Senate primaries, or 20.8 percent of those states’ registered voters. By this point in 2014, 9.7 million people had voted in 19 Senate primaries. (Comparisons are difficult because different sets of states voted in Senate races in 2014 and 2018, a consequence of senators’ staggered terms.)
“Direct comparisons are easier in the 36 states that are choosing governors this year, because the same states did so four years ago. (Governors serve four-year terms in all states except Vermont and New Hampshire, where they serve for two years.) So far, total turnout in the 20 states that have held gubernatorial primaries is 22.7 million (24.8 percent of these states’ registered voters), up from 14.9 million (18.4 percent) in 2014.”
Several other factors bode well for Democrats.
First, Democratic primary losers (e.g. Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York) have quickly closed ranks to support the winner. If this is a “civil war,” it is the most cordial one I’ve ever seen.
Second, Democrats are benefiting from a surge in the number of female candidates (“Data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University shows that more women have filed to run for Congress than at any point since at least 1992 — and by a wide margin. That year, 298 women ran for the House of Representatives. This year, 476 have — most of them Democrats”); those female candidates have brought to the forefront a set of new female donors (“44 percent of contributions to Democratic women running for Congress came from women, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the highest share yet and a 5-point jump from 2014”). The gender gap may be the defining feature of the election, and the success of female candidates, female donors and female activists might provide an institutional advantage for the Democrats among women for years to come. Talk about political karma: Trump and the #MeToo movement, which Trump in part spurred, may be the downfall of the GOP in this cycle.
Third, Democrats stand to pick up a large number of governorships. Democrats winning at the top of the ticket will help Democrats down-ballot, including state representatives. And gains in state legislatures, coupled with pickups in governorships, mean a favorable lineup for redistricting efforts and for legislation (e.g. automatic registration) that will permanently increase voter participation.
Finally, Democrats have litigated and complained for years about voter-ID rules and other GOP efforts that depressed turnout among voters, including minorities and the poor, who are more likely to cast Democratic ballots. However, with strong candidates, competitive races, voter registration pushes and mass marches (which promote voting), Democratic turnout could swamp whatever barriers to voting Republicans throw up.
In sum, Democrats have a lot going their way, but more important, there is plenty of evidence that democracy itself is alive and well. And the cure to an illiberal democratic ruler is mass turnout among voters who care about democratic institutions and norms. In other words, go vote.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective.