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Explaining The Increase In The Voter Turnout By The Election Of President Donald Trump

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Voting is a fundamental right granted to American citizens, and is the means by which representatives and senators are elected to Congress. According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of eligible citizens that vote in Presidential elections is roughly 60%, significantly higher than the roughly 40% that vote during midterm elections. This consistent pattern in turnout is expected, since Presidential elections garner more attention and generally have more at stake than midterm elections. However, the most recent midterm election in 2018 shattered the expected pattern with 53% of eligible citizens voting, the highest midterm voting rate in four decades. This sudden increase in midterm voter participation can potentially be explained by the election of President Donald Trump. President Trump’s election certainly divided the nation across partisan lines, which could explain the enthusiasm behind the 2018 midterms. His approval in November 2018 among Republicans was 91%, compared to 5% among Democrats. Nationwide, his 2018 approval rating was 38%, the lowest of the past five President’s second-year ratings. This clear disapproval would be a reasonable impetus for dissatisfied voters to exercise their constitutional right in a significant way, almost as a retaliation against the President.

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Analyzing voter turnout by political party can provide a clear link between dissatisfaction with the President and increased participation in the midterms. As expected, around 16 million more Democrat votes were cast in 2018 compared to 2014, which is double the 8 million Republican vote increase since 20145. With greater nationwide enthusiasm, specifically from the Democrat party, comes increased representation in Congress. Democrats gained 41 House seats and earned a majority, which allowed the party to thwart the President’s legislative interests and conduct impeachment inquiries. Nevertheless, the clear political rift in the aftermath of President Trump’s election can mostly explain the phenomenon of increased midterm turnout in 2018. Aside from the election of President Trump, an increase in the number of eligible voters could potentially elucidate the overall increase in midterm turnout. If more people become eligible to vote, either through age or naturalized citizenship, then more will be naturally inclined to vote. However, US Census Bureau data reveals a steady growth of around 4 million new eligible voters each election year; there was not a significant surge of eligible voters in 2018 to cause a natural increase in voter turnout. Though an increase in eligible voters did not contribute to increased midterm turnout, certain age and racial groups displayed surges in voter participation that could explain this phenomenon. Most notably, turnout from 18- to 29-year-olds increased from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018, a whopping 79% jump7. Hispanic voting also increased from 27% in 2014 to 40% in 2018, a 13% increase; this was the highest percent increase in turnout of any racial group. Trump’s divisive rhetoric could explain the increase in voting among Hispanics and young Democrat voters. If these subsets of voters felt threatened by the President’s potential policies, then an increase in voter participation is expected. Another factor that could explain the increase in midterm voter turnout is the expanded coverage across traditional and social media. If more people are aware of an upcoming election, then more are likely to vote. In 2018, The New York Times found that Democratic candidates overall had more Facebook interactions than Republicans candidates had, which certainly drove interest and awareness of the election among potential voters. Google searches for “midterm election” peaked in November 2018, and were six times as popular as the same search was in 2014. Even Snapchat was responsible for registering 400,000 new voters for the 2018 midterms.

Cable news media coverage of the 2018 midterms increased by 60% in viewership compared to 2014 midterm coverage. Though Americans increasingly spend less time watching television, this decline is compensated by a steady rise in social media consumption. Since younger people tend to consume social media more than older people, the increased midterm coverage across platforms certainly contributed to the observed increase in young voter turnout. As more people spend more time online, it is more likely that they will become informed of the election and candidates in their district. This hypothesis also relates to the election of President Trump, whose unprecedented daily tweeting garnered more than two billion dollars in free media coverage in 2016. This allowed his messaging to reach the entire nation daily, a luxury most politicians can only dream of. Media is inextricably linked to voter turnout, and constant coverage no doubt contributed to the observed phenomenon. In addition to media coverage, campaign spending may have played a large role in increasing voter turnout in 2018. From a grassroots level, campaigns are run by door knocking and phone banking constituents, both of which cost money. Additionally, campaigns must pay for advertising, staffers, media, and travel. At $5. 7 billion, the spending for the 2018 midterms was the highest for any midterm election in history13. Democrats spent $300 million more than Republicans, and Democratic candidates received a higher percentage of out-of-state money than Republican candidates. Compared to 2014, Democrat campaign spending for the midterm increased 44%, which is greater than the 21% increase in Republican spending. If the Democratic Party spent more money on its candidates nationwide, it is expected that more Democratic candidates will have the adequate resources to run a successful campaign by engaging more voters and winning the election.

The increase in Democrat campaign spending correlates with more Democrats voting in 2018; the Democratic enthusiasm to regain power coupled with the financial means to win competitive elections may have resulted in the observed increased midterm turnout in 2018. Though the phenomenon of increased voter turnout during the 2018 midterm elections is not simply due to an increase in eligible voters, it may be explained by the effects of President Trump’s election. His divisive rhetoric garnered almost nonstop media coverage since his first day in office and his low approval ratings drove voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Young voters exposed to media were educated on their candidates and the upcoming midterm election, which resulted in a significant increase in voter turnout. The Democratic Party, firmly opposed to the President, outspent Republicans and provided necessary funds for candidates to canvas their districts and increase turnout in their favor. These factors certainly worked in tandem to increase voter turnout, and perhaps we will once again see a record-breaking turnout for the Presidential election next year.

10 December 2020

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