The unusual turnout dynamic that could decide the 2024 election

For decades, Democrats have built their electoral strategies on a common assumption: the higher the turnout, the better their chances of winning. But that familiar equation may no longer apply for President Joe Biden in 2024.

A wide array of polls this year shows Biden running best among Americans with the most consistent history of voting, while former President Donald Trump often displays the most strength among people who have been the least likely to vote.

These new patterns are creating challenges for each party. Trump’s potential appeal to more irregular voters, particularly younger Black and Latino men, is compelling Democrats to rethink longstanding strategies that focused on mobilizing as many younger and non-White voters as possible without worrying about their partisan allegiance. For Republicans, the challenge will be to build an organization capable of connecting with irregular voters they have not traditionally focused on reaching, particularly in minority communities.

“What all this means is this election has volatility,” says Daniel Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who has studied the widening partisan divergence between voters with and without a consistent history of turning out. “We used to expect that the marginal non-voter, the next voter who turned out if an election was very engaging, didn’t look different from people who did vote. In this case, the crowd that hasn’t gotten engaged looks very, very different.”

Merged results from the three most recent national NBC polls, conducted by a bipartisan team of prominent Democratic and Republican pollsters, for instance, found that Biden leads Trump by 4 percentage points among people who voted in both 2020 and 2022. But among those who voted in 2020 but not 2022, Trump led Biden by 12 percentage points. Trump’s lead swelled to 20 percentage points among those who did not vote in either 2020 or 2022. Fully 65% of those who did not vote in either of the past two elections said they disapproved of Biden’s performance in office.

Combined results from recent national New York Times/Siena College polls likewise have found Biden narrowly leading among potential 2024 voters who turned out in 2020 while trailing Trump by double digits among those who did not vote in their previous contest.

Hopkins has conducted perhaps the most ambitious attempt to quantify the divergence between Americans with and without a history of voting. Earlier this year, he and a colleague worked with NORC at the University of Chicago to survey over 2,400 adults about their preferences in the 2024 race. The poll only surveyed people who were old enough to vote in each of the past three elections — the midterms of 2018 and 2022 and the 2020 presidential race.

The results were striking. Among adults who had voted in each of the past three federal elections, Biden led Trump by 11 points, and Biden eked out a narrow advantage among voters who participated in two of the past three races. But, the poll found, Trump led Biden by 12 percentage points among those who voted in just one of the past three elections and by a crushing margin of 18 percentage points among those who came out for none of them.

As important, the pattern held across racial lines. In the poll, Trump ran even with Biden among Latinos who voted in two, one or none of the past three elections, while Biden held a nearly 20-point advantage among those who voted in all three. With Black voters, Biden’s lead was just 10 points among those who did not show up for any of the past three elections, but over 80 points among those who participated in all three.

Using data from Catalist, a leading Democratic voter targeting firm, Michael Podhorzer, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, reached similar conclusions. He found that in 2020 Biden’s margins over Trump were higher among people who voted in the three previous elections of 2018, 2016 and 2014 than those who voted in some or none of them — and that the relationship held across racial lines.

Hopkins said the gap between habitual and irregular voters in his latest survey was far greater than the difference he found when he conducted a similar poll early in the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Key to this widening chasm, he believes, may be another dynamic: Adults who are less likely to vote are also less likely to follow political news.

“For more infrequent voters, these are often people who pay less attention to politics and whose political barometer is more the question of how is my family doing economically, how does the country seem to be doing,” Hopkins said. “For those voters, Donald Trump…is not especially unusual.” By contrast, Hopkins said, a “sizable sliver” of habitual voters “have a sense that Trump may be qualitatively different than other political candidates with respect to norm violations and January 6.” For less frequent voters, he added, the equation may be as simple as “they don’t love what they see with Joe Biden, and if Donald Trump is the person running against Joe Biden, they want change.”

The NBC polling results buttress that conclusion: It found that among the roughly one-sixth of voters who say they do not follow political news, Trump led Biden by fully 2-to-1.

Several analysts caution that while this divergence between high- and low-frequency voters is appearing consistently in polls now, it’s too early to say for certain whether it will persist through Election Day.

“It’s May,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, whose firm conducts the NBC poll with a Democratic partner. “This data matters when people start having to vote.” Democratic strategist Tom Bonier pointed out that public opinion surveys often have enough trouble measuring attitudes among young people and minorities, let alone accurately capturing those who are most disengaged from the political system.

Melissa Morales — founder and president of Somos Votantes and Somos PAC, groups that mobilize Latino voters — said that in their outreach campaigns this year, they are not seeing the tilt toward Trump among low-frequency voters evident in these multiple polls. In their work during 2022, she said, “We were hearing it in the field, with low propensity Latino voters, they were open to Trump, especially [over] the economy.” But, she added, “We are not hearing that in the field right now” and instead “what we are hearing is deep concern about the cost of living, rising costs, and a strong desire to know what the path forward is.”

Even with all these cautions, there are strong reasons to believe that Trump may benefit more from a very large overall turnout this year than Biden would.

That conclusion is consistent with the other unusual demographic patterns evident in the 2024 election. So far, in almost all polls, Biden is holding a higher share of his 2020 vote among White than non-White voters; he’s also maintaining more of his 2020 level of support with seniors than with young people. Among Whites, Biden, as in 2020, is running much better with those who hold at least a four-year college degree than those who don’t.

Biden’s relative strength among seniors and college-educated White voters means that he’s drawing from two of the most reliable voting blocs in the electorate. In 2020, about 75% of people older than 65 voted, compared to just 54% of young people aged 18-29, according to calculations from Census data by William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Metro. (Even that was a big increase in turnout among young people from the 2012 and 2016 elections.) Far more White voters with degrees turned out than those without them as well.

Turnout was especially modest among the Black and Latino voters who have shown the most receptivity to Trump — men without a college degree. Only slightly less than half of them voted in 2020, Frey found.

Most experts who study turnout consider it unlikely that as many people will vote this year as in 2020, largely because so many voters hold negative views about both Biden and Trump. After a record 160 million people voted in 2020, Bonier said his preliminary calculation is that turnout in 2024 is more likely to reach between 145-150 million with the possibility that as few as 140 million people will vote. Jeremy Smith, CEO of Civitech, a Democratic voter data and targeting firm, said that the number of people registered to even potentially vote is way down from the total at this point in the 2020 cycle.

“Generally, if you said there are two possible electorates — one is 140 million people voting and one is 160 million people — the high likelihood is that the 140 would be better for Biden,” said Bonier, a senior adviser and former CEO of TargetSmart, a leading Democratic targeting firm.

If turnout shrinks from 2020, the key question for the two sides will be which voters fall away — and how many new voters enter the electorate to replace them.

Generally, Democrats believe that in the Trump era the party benefits when the most habitual voters comprise a larger share of the electorate. Many Democrats believe that a key reason the party exceeded expectations in the 2022 midterm is that the electorate tilted more than anticipated toward these regular voters. The Democratic polling firm Equis Research, which focuses on Latino voters, for instance, found in its post-election analysis that Democrats performed slightly better than expected with that group largely because irregular Latino voters, who were more receptive to Trump, failed to come out.

Michael Madrid, a long-time GOP strategist who has become a fierce Trump critic, said that the disappointing 2022 results for Republicans showed the risk for the party in the turnout patterns that the former president has triggered. Republicans under Trump, Madrid argued, are gaining support among non-White men, particularly Latinos, while shedding support among college-educated White voters, especially women. The danger for the GOP, Madrid said, is that the latter group turns out at a far higher rate than the former (as Frey’s data shows).

Given that disparity, Madrid argued, Trump “needs a high turnout” that pulls in less reliable minority voters, especially Latino men. Trump’s conundrum, Madrid said, is that the belligerent rule-breaking persona that attracts those younger non-White men alienates more of the well-educated White women already trending away from him.

“He is talking to a single young male between video games: He’s got them, they love him,” Madrid said. “But there are suburban women that you lose by that, who hate that. That’s his dilemma. He gets the turnout, but he also gets the turnoff.”

The best-case scenario for Trump is that an unusually large number of these irregularly voting working-class minorities come out to vote for him. Given his success in the past two elections at turning out irregularly voting working-class Whites, no one discounts his chances of turning out irregularly voting working-class non-Whites this time. But it’s hardly guaranteed: Though these voters tend to be strongly discontented with the economy, Democrats believe they can loosen Trump’s hold on them by highlighting his views on other issues, such as his pledges to implement a mass deportation effort against undocumented migrants, or to pardon White supremacists convicted in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. And as Podhorzer argued, unhappiness with the economy historically has not proven to be a powerful force in motivating irregular voters to show up.

But Republicans point out that even if Trump doesn’t win as many of these irregularly voting non-White men as polls show today, he will still benefit if they drift toward third-party candidates or simply choose not to vote. Looking at the Black community, “even if you don’t buy the potential for Trump to flip lots of votes there, it seems there’s considerable risk of a turnout drop-off that will hit Biden’s raw margins out of big cities in the battlegrounds that Democrats usually depend on,” said GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini.

For that reason, many voter mobilization experts say Democrats can’t give up on infrequent voters showing receptivity to Trump. Podhorzer pointed out that Democrats can still benefit from high turnout if the campaign’s final weeks focus on the aspects of Trump’s agenda that most alienate the irregular voters who surged to the polls against him in 2020. Morales said the number of low-frequency Latino voters that Somos PAC turned out in Nevada in 2022 exceeded Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s margin of victory there, and the group remains committed to reaching those same voters for Biden.

“Not only can we get them out to vote, but when we have a conversation about the contrast and what their votes mean on the issues, we can win those voters over,” Morales said.

All of these dynamics may prove most volatile with younger voters. Through the 21st century, as first Millennials and now Generation Z have entered the electorate in large numbers, Democrats have unwaveringly operated on the belief that turning out as many young voters as possible would benefit the party.

But that’s a much more uncertain proposition in 2024, as demonstrated by the latest youth poll from the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, probably the most in-depth look at attitudes among young people. In the IOP poll this spring, Biden led Trump by nearly 20 points among young adults (aged 18-29) who said they definitely plan to vote in November; that lead was comparable to Biden’s advantage among all young adults in 2020. But Trump’s position steadily improved as the likelihood of voting diminished, with the former president leading Biden by 2-to-1 among those who said they probably would not vote.

Those who indicated they were less likely to vote tended to be young people without a college degree, non-Whites and the very youngest cohort aged 18-24. John Della Volpe, the Institute of Politics’ polling director, pointed out that those youngest adults probably don’t remember much about Trump’s presidency.

“Younger voters today have a different view of Trump,” said Della Volpe, who advised the Biden campaign in 2020 on young voters. “They were 10, 12, 13 years old when he descended down that escalator, when he blocked Muslims, when he pulled out of Paris [the international climate treaty], when he talked about Charlottesville. They were children. Their values don’t align with his values, but there is less toxicity when you bring up his name. So there is this openness that wasn’t there in the last two elections.”

Even as recently as 2020, Della Volpe said, Democrats could target young people with what politicians in the old big-city machines used to call a “blind pull” — where a party can focus on turning out everyone in a particular neighborhood because such a high percentage of them will reliably vote for them. This year, he said, with young voters, “it’s definitely more complicated. It’s not a blind pull.”

Della Volpe’s observation underscores how Trump’s strength among irregular voters could force Democrats to reconsider their tactics. Much of the voter registration and turnout work aimed at minority and young voters has historically operated through liberal non-profit organizations that target the broad population in those groups on the assumption that most of them will ultimately favor Democrats.

But this year, some Democratic strategists worry that casting such a wide net could inadvertently mobilize an unusually large number of peripheral voters who favor Trump. That could compel Democrats to switch more of their registration and turnout efforts toward explicitly partisan programs, which can target voters more precisely based on their partisanship, but which are more difficult to raise money for. “You are hearing more groups struggling because their thesis has been ‘I take [non-profit] dollars to get, say, all non-White voters’” to register and turnout, said Smith of Civitech.

For Republicans, the mirror image imperative is finding ways to organize the irregular Black and Latino voters showing openness to Trump. Republicans don’t have much history of courting those voters, and, ironically, any effort to do so may be impeded by the barriers to voting that many Republican-controlled states have erected since 2020. Republicans also face the complication that Trump’s diversion of large amounts of his fundraising toward his legal defense may mean there’s less money available to invest in on-the-ground campaign operations.

That may not matter much if the combination of Trump’s ubiquitous media presence and discontent with Biden’s record encourages enough irregular voters open to the former president to turn out in November. Based on the results in 2018, 2020 and 2022, Democrats can feel confident that at least as many habitual voters are hostile to Trump as committed to him, particularly in most of the battleground states that will decide the election. The decisive variable for 2024 may be how many people beyond that inner core of the most reliable voters show up and whether they break for the former president as decisively as most polls now suggest.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the PAC that turned out Latino voters in Nevada in 2022.

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