The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters are off-the-charts excited about voting in an election that’s still 14 months away

Fans react in excitement as President Trump enters the Amway Center in Orlando on June 18, 2019. (Zack Wittman/for The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s rallies are bonkers. Trump loves them because it combines two of his favorite things: an ability to say whatever he wants and being greeted with rapturous applause. And that’s generally what he gets. When he walks out onstage, it’s like Paul McCartney stepping off the plane at JFK in 1964.

It’s unusual. Political candidates generally don’t engender that sort of energy. But then, most politicians don’t cultivate it the way Trump does. It’s a level of enthusiasm that we don’t typically see in politics, and Trump likes it that way.

Those are small groups, thousands of people in an isolated area. But that enthusiasm about Trump isn’t limited to those rooms. New polling from CNN and its polling partner SSRS shows just how widespread that enthusiasm is — both in support of and opposition to the incumbent president.

There are regular patterns to voter enthusiasm, as historical CNN poll data show: somewhat mediocre enthusiasm, with a surge as the election approaches. Midterms are a bit different, with less-than-mediocre enthusiasm holding steady throughout the cycle.

Most midterms, anyway. In 2018, we saw a midterm election cycle that looked a lot like a presidential one: a late surge of interest that correlated to unusually high turnout on Election Day. That, too, was in part a function of Trump. Democrats eager to send a message to the president surged to the polls, giving their party control of the House.

Compare that 2018 line with the one for 2016, a presidential election that really seemed more like a midterm. That year, two candidates who were not particularly well-liked battled for the presidency, splitting popular-vote and electoral-vote wins. America was meh about its choice, and it showed in CNN’s polls.

Now let’s add the current level of enthusiasm for 2020.

That’s hard to fathom. Enthusiasm — here, those saying they are extremely enthusiastic about voting — is higher now than even in the final weeks of past presidential contests.

If we combine the two most enthusiastic categories in CNN’s polling (those who say they’re extremely enthusiastic and those who identify as very enthusiastic), we see that combined enthusiasm has been at or above 70 percent in every poll CNN has conducted this cycle.

Only once before has that measure of enthusiasm been at 70 percent: Two weeks before the 2004 election, 70 percent of voters were at least very enthusiastic about voting in it.

And that’s the low so far this year.

Things get more interesting once we break out enthusiasm by party. In CNN’s new poll, 47 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans say they are extremely enthusiastic about voting next year. Contrast that with September 2015, when 30 percent of voters overall were extremely enthusiastic about voting in 2016. Four years ago, 55 percent were at least very enthusiastic.

You can see how enthusiasm overlaps with election results by considering the responses by party. Look how low enthusiasm was among Democrats in 2010, for example.

Especially when compared with Republicans.

If we look at that election specifically by party, the blowout results in favor of the GOP seem as though they were inevitable.

But Republicans tend to vote more heavily than Democrats do, meaning that a more riled-up Democratic base is a better sign for the left than hyper-enthusiastic Republicans are for the right. After all, enthusiasm among people who generally vote all the time can be less useful than enthusiasm among those who don’t.

Consider 2018, when the Democrats had a slightly smaller blowout election.

Democrats led in enthusiasm for most of the cycle, though Republicans matched them at the end. Didn’t do them much good in House races.

One interesting pattern to consider is the last two times Democrats won the White House. In 2008, the Democrats had a monster enthusiasm lead, and Barack Obama trounced Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

In 2012, the parties were more evenly matched — but Obama still won a majority of the vote and was reelected fairly easily.

That’s the question mark that lingers over the 2020 race at the moment. So far, the parties are fairly evenly matched on enthusiasm.

Does that mean that low-frequency Democrats will come out and vote? Will it be sustained? Will that enthusiasm push less-frequent Trump voters to the polls, too?

Crowd size and volume is not a great proxy for voter enthusiasm. But in this case, the polling suggests that the amount of energy Trump engenders from people on both sides of the partisan spectrum is in fact legit.