WASHINGTON — At his final rally in South Carolina last Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a plea to the boisterous crowd gathered to see him. “I’m asking you to bring out your friends and your coworkers and your neighbors,” Sanders said, “so we can have the largest voter turnout in the history of the South Carolina primary.”
Sanders isn’t alone. It’s a staple of the Democratic stump speech that voters must mobilize in historic numbers this year. Faced with an incumbent president whose supporters are dedicated to the point of fanaticism, Democrats need massive, if not record-breaking, voter turnout in November to pry Donald Trump out of the White House.
The opening act of the Democratic nomination fight is now over. The field has shrunk to a handful of candidates with Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg dropping out of the race in recent days. The campaign now enters a frenetic period that will see 15 states vote on Super Tuesday and 15 more states and territories hold primaries this month. The campaigns can’t invest heavily in turnout in those states given the number of states voting and their geographic distribution. The first four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — are the best indicators for what overall turnout could look like in November.
So: What has turnout been like so far? What do those numbers mean for November? Are Democrats on pace to mobilize record numbers of voters — or is it time to freak out?
Let’s start with the Republican Party. Voters have mobilized in huge numbers even though Trump is essentially running uncontested. (The Nevada and South Carolina Republican parties canceled their elections entirely.) In New Hampshire, Trump received 129,696 votes, which is more than double what Obama got in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004.
Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin who studies voter turnout, says Trump’s huge levels of support defy historical trends about sitting presidents who run for reelection. “A sitting incumbent running for reelection — that shouldn’t stimulate much interest,” Burden says. “It all runs a little contrary to what I think we would’ve expected.”
For the Democrats, the story is less rosy. Historic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections and several special elections since Trump took office has not yet translated into similar outpourings of voter energy in the first four primaries and caucuses. Political scientists and voting experts tell Rolling Stone that the turnout so far is good but not great. In several states more people voted, or a higher share of the voting-eligible population voted, than did four years ago. But the numbers so far have not met the high-water mark of the 2008 campaign.
“We’re not seeing the sort of eye-popping turnout numbers we’ve seen over the last couple of years we’ve seen since Trump became president,” says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who specializes in American elections.
McDonald says there could be several explanations for why the early 2020 contests haven’t hit 2008 turnout levels despite the high stakes of the election. “This is a choice between Democratic candidates, and so people who might be enthused or excited to vote against Trump are largely sitting on the sidelines at the moment,” he says. “They don’t really care who the Democratic nominee is going to be. It’s going to be a Democrat and that’s enough for them.”
One reason for that, he says, is that the 2020 Democratic primary doesn’t have the same history-making feel to it. Twelve years ago, Democrats had a clear choice between nominating the first African American candidate or the first woman candidate. The size of the field could also have a dampening effect as Democrats struggle to decide which candidate to support. “The historic nature isn’t there,” McDonald says.
Whichever Democrat clinches the nomination will need a groundswell of grassroots energy in November. But more than any other Democrat, Bernie Sanders has staked his candidacy on his ability to galvanize Democratic voters and convince millions of nonvoters to cast their ballots for him.
The early evidence does not support Sanders’ theory of the case. There has not been a sizable influx of new voters, though the youth vote — which smashed the record for midterm turnout in 2018 — surpassed 2008 levels in Iowa and tracked closely with 2016 levels in New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina. “What we are seeing is that despite complicated caucus rules, new residency requirements in New Hampshire, and strict voter ID in South Carolina, the trends are continuing from the midterms — young people are making there voices heard in this primary process in greater numbers than they have before,” says Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote. “After being on the frontlines of the climate marches, student walk outs, March for Our Lives and more the presidential candidates are investing unprecedented levels winning over the support of young voters and they are responding in kind by showing up.”
“That’s a strong contrast with Obama’s turnout in 2008 where there was a huge swell of new voters who came out,” says Barry Burden, the University of Wisconsin political scientist. “The number of young voters is not up as a share of Democratic voters. If they want to see a really high turnout in November, they’re gonna need to turn out young voters in high numbers. At least in the primaries and caucuses, there hasn’t been so much of that.”
In the Nevada caucus, the Sanders campaign showed it could assemble a winning coalition of white working class, Hispanic, and young voters. But the campaign has also acknowledged that it hasn’t mobilized voters on the scale that it needs. “Do I think that there is room for growth,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a top Sanders surrogate told the New York Times, “and do I think that Senator Sanders would have liked the numbers to have been even further up among voters of color, among young voters, among working-class voters? Absolutely.”
In the end, Burden says, most Democrats are going to want to remove Trump so badly that they will be very energized in the election even if they’re not enthusiastic about the nominee. “But it’s these little margins in the swing states that make the difference,” he says. “For Democrats to win back Michigan or North Carolina or Arizona, slightly lower levels of turnout among some key groups can be consequential.”
Here’s the bottom line: The revolution has yet to arrive. No candidate has rebuilt the coalition that delivered Obama the nomination in 2008. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen — anger at this president and fear of another four years of Trump will undoubtedly motivate huge numbers of Democrats in November who aren’t tuned into the primary.
And yet. Those are potential Democratic voters. Trump is turning people out in historic numbers right now. Democrats need to act — fast.