Voter apathy is a thing of the past in national elections

Side-by-side photos of former President Trump and President Biden
This year’s midterm elections are playing out as a strange continuation of the last presidential race — between Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden — with the same high turnout likely.
(Associated Press)

A paradox sits at the heart of American politics: By several measures — widespread mistrust of the electoral system, a large share of people willing to countenance political violence and a major political party that has embraced lies and conspiracy theories as a route to power — the country’s democratic system stands closer to the brink than it has in generations.

But measured in the most direct way — by participation — democracy has seldom been healthier.

While seemingly at odds, the two facts go together, and Donald Trump played a huge role in both.

Just a few years ago, people on both sides of the political divide agreed that one problem presented the greatest threat to American democracy — voter apathy.

As recently as 2014, turnout for the nation’s midterm elections fell to its lowest point since 1942, a time when wartime mobilization had disrupted the lives of millions of Americans.

In just four years, Trump solved the apathy problem.

Midterm turnout soared in 2018 to the highest level in more than a century. This year’s balloting seems on track to repeat — perhaps even beat — that level, judging by the size of the early vote so far, the turnout for special elections this summer and the level of interest that voters express in polls.


Fear drives votes

“Give people an existential fear,” and they’ll show up to vote, says Tom Bonier, the head of the Democratic voter targeting firm TargetSmart.

Political leaders generally like to project a sunny optimism about the future — think of President Reagan‘s “shining city on a hill,” President Clinton‘s “Man From Hope” or President Obama‘s poster of that same emotion. But political professionals know that fear, anger and hatred provide more powerful motivation.

Trump’s political success in 2016 rested on his willingness to openly exploit those negative emotions. So did his 2020 failure.

Fear of immigration formed the foundation for Trump’s 2016 campaign. He built on that by stoking his supporters’ dislike of the urban, liberal elite that he — and they — blamed for every dislocating change in American life. That campaign pushed up turnout among Trump’s white, rural, conservative base, leading to his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

But fear runs both ways, and as president, Trump’s policies generated a huge backlash. In the 2018 midterm elections, young people, in particular, turned out at significantly higher rates than they previously had. Turnout among Latino and Asian voters also saw notable increases, and the white share of the electorate fell, according to detailed statistics from University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, whose U.S. Elections Project provides the definitive numbers on turnout.

Those trends all carried over to 2020, which saw ballots from two-thirds of the voting-eligible population (citizens 18 and older who aren’t barred from voting because of a felony conviction or mental incapacity) — the highest level for a U.S. election since the U.S. embraced near-universal suffrage. The previous records date to 1900 and earlier, when voter eligibility in much of the U.S. was restricted to white men.

McDonald and Bonier both think turnout for the current midterm may top the 2018 level. So does the Republican polling firm Echelon Insights, which recently predicted that 2022 turnout would top 2018 by an eye-popping 13%.

“This is a unique midterm,” Bonier said. “Generally in midterm elections, one party is engaged and motivated, and the other side is not.” This year, “both sides seem to be very highly engaged.”


That introduces more uncertainty to close races across the country.

For pollsters, estimating voter turnout is the trickiest element of designing an election survey. Unlike polls that set out to measure opinion on issues, where the goal is to get a representative sample of a known population (already a tough job), election surveys have to capture a representative sample of an unknown population — the people who will eventually cast ballots.

There’s a lot of room for error.

Even in the recent high-turnout elections, tens of millions of potential voters remained on the sidelines. The estimate that two-thirds of eligible Americans voted in 2020 still means that a third did not — this year, that would amount to nearly 80 million people. With the upturn in recent years, U.S. turnout now stands just slightly lower than the rates in Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand, but it continues to trail behind Germany, much of northern Europe and Israel, where turnouts of 75% or more are standard.

Those who don’t vote aren’t evenly distributed across the population. Even though younger voters turned out at much higher levels in 2018 than they had in the past, for example, they still did not approach the voting rate of retirees. Latino and Asian voters, who tend to be younger on average, have lower turnout levels than either Black or white Americans. And voting rates predictably rise with income and education.

Among Democrats, it’s long been an article of faith that high turnout favors their side — many Republicans believe that, too. But that belief, born in part out of the struggles by Black and Latino communities to win voting rights, no longer always holds true.

In the Trump era, white voters who don’t have a college degree have become the mainstay of the GOP, and that group tends to have lower turnout rates than the college-educated voters who have moved toward the Democrats. When voter turnout has surged in recent elections, it’s often been Trump voters who have surprised people by showing up.

“Pointy-headed academics like me — we vote,” McDonald said. “In a high-turnout election, you get more occasional voters.”


Depending on which groups show up in large numbers, polling projections could be off in either direction.

The pollsters at CBS, for example, found in their latest survey that Republican prospects in the midterms had stabilized after a couple of months of decline. They projected that the GOP would win a small majority in the House, around 224 seats, to 211 for the Democrats — an estimate that’s in line with what many other nonpartisan forecasters project.

As part of that survey, the CBS analysts projected that voters younger than 45 would make up about a quarter of the electorate this year, down from about one-third four years ago.

But what if that’s not how it turns out? The pollsters looked at a scenario in which younger voters match their 2018 turnout level. In that case, they said, Democrats would be forecast to win 219 seats — making control of the House a coin flip.

Other possibilities could favor Republicans.

For example, some recent polls have shown Democratic motivation starting to flag as the Supreme Court’s abortion decision fades further into the rearview and as high levels of inflation continue to make people pessimistic about the economy. If economic worries deepen over the next couple of weeks, Republican gains in the House almost surely will be larger, and their prospects for winning control of the Senate will improve.

Regardless of which side prevails, however, most signs indicate that the U.S. has entered a period of much higher voter participation, which could continue for a long time.


That reverses a string of low-turnout elections that began when the eligible population was expanded to 18- and 19-year-olds by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971. Turnout remained low for the next three decades, then started rebounding in presidential years in 2004.

“Even as presidential interest and turnout was going up, that wasn’t happening in midterms” until 2018, McDonald said. “Now that disconnect is finally coming back together.”

The reason isn’t hard to discern, he said: “Conflict creates a belief that politics matters.”

California’s top races

With the election now less than three weeks away, we’re continuing to roll out summaries of the state’s top races, along with candidate responses to a questionnaire that Times reporters and editors prepared:

— The race in California’s 27th Congressional District marks another rematch between Republican incumbent Mike Garcia and Democratic former Assemblywoman Christy Smith. As Hannah Fry and Seema Mehta reported, the district, which covers the northern tier of Los Angeles County, was once solidly Republican but has grown more favorable to Democrats. It represents one of the Democrats’ best opportunities to defeat a Republican incumbent.

— Farther south, Republican Rep. Michelle Steel and Democratic Navy Reserve intelligence officer Jay Chen are competing to represent the 45th Congressional District straddling Orange and Los Angeles counties. As Terry Castleman wrote, the race has been contentious, with Steel sending out mailers using heavily doctored images to attack Chen.


— Next door, the contest in the 40th Congressional District, which is mostly in Orange County, features Republican incumbent Rep. Young Kim and Dr. Asif Mahmood, a Democrat, Castleman wrote.

— Democratic Rep. Katie Porter and Republican former Assemblyman Scott Baugh are competing in the 47th Congressional District, a coastal swath of Orange County that extends from Laguna Beach to Seal Beach and inland to Costa Mesa and Irvine. Porter and Baugh both oppose drilling off California’s coast and the cap on local and state tax deductions, Fry writes, but disagree on much else.

— Hannah Wiley examined the race for California attorney general, which pits incumbent Rob Bonta against Nathan Hochman, a Republican defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— For years, many Democrats worried that a focus on abortion rights would turn off Latino voters, who were presumed to be more socially conservative than other Democratic-leaning constituencies. But as Noah Bierman and Melanie Mason reported, that thinking has changed, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, Democrats are leaning heavily on the abortion issue to reach Latino voters.

— For a brief time in 2020, it seemed as though the vote-by-mail movement was having a bipartisan moment, Arit John wrote. In response to COVID-19, nearly all states dramatically changed voting rules to allow more people to cast ballots from home. Since then, however, red and blue states have taken very different paths, so voting rules now vary widely, depending on where a person lives.

President Biden stood at the edge of a bridge with Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman on Thursday and talked mostly about the bridge. As Eli Stokols reported, the structure, which partially collapsed in January, was rebuilt with $25 million in federal funds expedited after the passage of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. Biden used it to illustrate his main argument ahead of next month’s midterm election: Democrats have done big things to improve Americans’ day-to-day lives.

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The latest from California

More than $1 billion so far has been poured into California races — but with less than three weeks to go before voting ends, candidates for governor and U.S. Senate haven’t aired a single general election ad that touts their campaigns, Mehta and Taryn Luna reported. The big money is all flowing to the Los Angeles mayoral race, along with sports-betting ballot measures and congressional clashes that could determine the balance of power in Washington.

— Orange County is far more affluent on average than the rest of the country, the unemployment rate is only around 3% and in recent elections the county’s suburbs have trended blue. But despite all that, the economy has Democrats in the county on the defensive, as Fry reported. The culprit — rising prices, which have soured many voters on Democratic policies.

— L.A. City Councilmember Kevin de León vowed on Wednesday not to resign, despite calls for him to step down after an audio recording revealed racist remarks that he made in a private discussion a year ago with two other council members and the then-head of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor. By brazening it out and refusing to quit, De León may be hoping not just to hang on to his council seat for another two years, but also to preserve his chances for bigger and brighter things beyond City Hall, Mark Barabak wrote in his column. Good luck with that, Barabak said.

— The scandal has revealed the worst flaw in De León’s character, one he shares with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Gustavo Arellano wrote in his column: The massive chips on their shoulders constantly sink their ambition — and put the people they serve at risk.

— The congressional election ads bombarding Californians show a sharp split on priorities — Democrats are laser-focused on abortion access, while Republicans zero in on inflation, Mehta and Castleman reported. “It’s almost as if there are two separate elections taking place in two entirely separate versions of the political multiverse,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley.

— After a summer of national and global climate devastation, Vice President Kamala Harris made a stop at San Francisco’s Cowell Theater on Tuesday to tout Democrats’ progress on climate policy just weeks before the midterm elections, Anumita Kaur and Hayley Smith reported.

— Two small planes were intercepted by F-16 fighter jets on two separate occasions after entering temporarily restricted airspace during Biden’s visit to Southern California last week, authorities said. As Alexandra Petri reported, the breaches by the single-engine planes happened when Biden was attending events in Los Angeles and Orange counties.


— About 5,000 people in Riverside County will receive duplicate vote-by-mail ballots for the November midterm election after a “computer system error,” but the mistake won’t allow voters to cast ballots twice, according to the county registrar. As Grace Toohey reported, the computer error was caught over the weekend, but not before 5,000 mail-in ballots were sent to voters living in Canyon Lake, Menifee, Murrieta, Wildomar and Winchester, said Rebecca Spencer, the Riverside County registrar of voters.

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LA Times Today: Voter apathy is a thing of the past in national elections

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