Decision 2020: Current status of this unusual election cycle (May 27 edition)

Going back in time to mid March, two events occurred almost simultaneously: (1) the coronavirus pandemic initially triggered shutdowns across most of America, and (2) Joe Biden’s “Super Tuesday” dominance over Bernie Sanders essentially concluded the competitive part of Democratic nomination contest. As a precaution against spreading the virus further, many states that would have held contests after March 15 postponed their contests, and those collective actions essentially put the 2020 election cycle to sleep. Now that states have (at different velocities) begun to loosen restrictions initially imposed at the onset of the pandemic, the 2020 contest is awakening from its slumber. So where do things stand right now ?

Part One: The state of primary season

What was the impact of the pandemic on election season? 21 states thus far have rescheduled their contests (in Louisiana, the originally scheduled spring primary for President and other local races was postponed twice, to where what would have been April 4 balloting has been moved back to July 11 (with early voting beginning on June 20).

Those rescheduled dates, however, are about to reignite the 2020 election season, as 10 states are having either Presidential contests, statewide/local contests, or a combination of both on June 2. In fact, the summer months will contain a steady stream both of originally scheduled statewide/local contests and originally scheduled Presidential/statewide/local contests. As of today, 15 states have not yet held their Presidential contests, and 40 states have not held their Congressional/local primaries (there is some overlap between these two categories). Finally, 13 states haven’t even concluded their candidate filing (Louisiana’s is the last in the nation with a July17 qualifying deadline for the fall elections). In other words, the 2020 primary election cycle has a long way to go.

Part Two: Taking the partisan temperature

As a pollster and data analyst, JMC firmly believes that the political mood of the country can be determined by other data points in addition to polling, such as changes in party registration and partisan primary turnout – the latter was a particularly useful barometer in accurately forecasting the 2018 Democratic wave, which JMC detected as far back as December 2017. So what do we how about the current political temperature ? Below are what JMC sees:

Partisan voter registration

In the 29 states with partisan voter registration that is posted on the Internet (these states in the aggregate have 115 million registered voters), JMC has been periodically tracking changes over time. Since January 2020 (when the 2020 political season began), Democrats have out-registered Republicans 944-402K (an additional 26K have registered with a third party). This is a widening of the gap for Democrats, as they held a 841-329-62K voter registration lead when these numbers were last compiled on April 8.

In general, Democrats have seen greater gains in voter registration relative to where they were in January 2020 in 20 of those 29 states, and in states thought to be competitive this fall, they have out registered Republicans everywhere except North Carolina and Pennsylvania. While it is true that the bulk of additional voter registrations for the fall elections will be occurring over the next 4-5 months, this current “voter registration deficit” is not good news for the Republicans, as a change in voter registrations can signal which party’s voters are more enthusiastic about the upcoming elections.

Primary participation

35 states have held Presidential contests so far, and a look at the raw partisan turnout numbers when compared to 2016 in those states shows a clear advantage favoring the Democrats in terms of primary turnout: Democrats went from 49% of the primary vote to 66% between 2016 and 2020, and their turnout increased 5.1 million, while Republican turnout decreased 9 million.

There are some major caveats to these numbers, however. For one thing, nine states cancelled their Republican Presidential primaries this year, and those primary contests produced 2.5 million Republican votes. The second factor that has to be taken into consideration is the considerable disruption that the coronavirus pandemic has potentially had on primary voter turnout.

Therefore, to present the numbers as factually as possible, primary turnout data first has to separate out the contests where voting concluded before March 15. Furthermore, states that didn’t have a Republican Presidential and/or statewide primary on the ballot in 2020 shouldn’t be included in this analysis either.

Having said that, before the pandemic, there were 17 states which held contests and both on the Democratic and Republican side. Turnout figures are below for those 17 states:

  • 2016: 27.5 million votes cast – 14.1 million (51%) Democratic, 13.5 million Republican
  • 2020: 27.4 million votes cast – 17.7 million (65%) Democratic, 9.6 million Republican

An additional six states have held contests since the beginning of the pandemic with both Democratic and Republican contests at the top of the ballot. Turnout figures are below:

  • 2016: 14.4 million votes cast – 6.8 million (47%) Democratic, 7.6 million Republican
  • 2020: 9.8 million votes cast – 6.0 million (61%) Democratic, 3.8 million Republican

And while these statistics to point out to proportionately greater Democratic enthusiasm, it’s also important to point out that (1) President Trump had minor opposition in the Republican Presidential primary, and (2) the Democratic primary essentially became a nonevent at about the same time the pandemic hit in mid March.

The more relevant statistic (which is also one where we have a very limited dataset) is partisan primary turnout in states with elections held after the beginning of the pandemic where Congressional/statewide/legislative races were on the ballot – thus far, only four states have had those kind of contests. It is worth noticing even from the limited dataset that while late March/early April primaries saw sharp declines in turnout, more recent primaries (Nebraska and Oregon) have seen primary turnout roughly equal to 2016 levels on both sides of the partisan aisle. We’ll have a clearer picture after the June primaries, when a larger number of statewide contests will be held.

Part Three: Presidential numbers

Since there hasn’t yet been full engagement between Donald Trump and Joe Biden (technically, Joe Biden hasn’t yet reached the number of delegates he needs to be nominated, although it’s only a matter of time), the average voter hasn’t yet been fully exposed to a legitimate “compare and contrast” between the candidates, although at this point in time, Joe Biden (according to Realclearpolitics) has an average poll lead of 48-42% over Donald Trump, while Trump’s average approval rating is 54-44% negative. These numbers will likely tighten as the general election skirmishing begins after the June primaries, but improving on these numbers is an obvious imperative for the Trump re-election campaign.