Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election at a higher rate than they have in over a century. The number of votes counted in 2020 is already 10 million higher than in 2016, though this rise in participation is also accompanied by an equal surge in geographic polarization. (Time)
Think of this as a good news-bad news story.
The good news is that voter participation is up--way up. In 2016, 136.8 million Americans voted. In 2020, 146.5 million have already been counted and that total may rise to nearly 155 million before it's done.
The voting rate (as a share of all eligible voters), which barely rose above 60.0% only three times since 1972, this year rose soared to 66.4%. That's the highest rate in a presidential election since 1900, when William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan in the second straight election. In 2018, similarly, voter participation in a midterm election hit its highest rate since 1914.
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that the Trump era has done wonders to revive Americans' interest in politics. Decade after decade, we've been lamenting America's "voter apathy" and "waning civic engagement." Since 2016, it seems, that's no longer a problem.
Why is voting up so high? The Time essay suggests it may be partly due to the big state expansion of early and mail-in balloting in response to the pandemic. I have my doubts. Clearly, the pandemic did at least as much to discourage voter outreach and voting as it did to encourage it. The first big spike in participation, moreover, occurred in 2018, long before anybody ever heard of Covid-19.
A better explanation is the rapidly rising share of voters, since 2016, who feel "it really matters" who wins the election (from 63% of 2012 to 83% in 2020). There has been a parallel rise in the share who say that the parties "differ" on the issues, who are "certain" who they will vote for, and who say they will be "angry" if the other candidate wins. (See "Election 2020: Around the States in 50 Days.")
Many of these emotions are negative and are therefore powerful. Growing numbers of voters believe they have nothing in common with the other side. According to Pew Research, roughly 9 in 10 voters in both parties went into the 2020 election thinking that victory for the other party would do "lasting harm" to America.
This, then, is the bad news. A lot more people are voting because they are worried about what is happening to their country and are fearful of the other side. The WSJ recently asked, a bit puckishly, "What's so great about high voter turnout?... In a way, voter indifference can signal a healthy democracy... People who decide that voting isn't worth their time are expressing contentment." Clearly, few are content when one-half of America feels lightyears distant from the other half.
To bring this point to life, let's reflect on the growing regional polarization of this America, which seems to have continued unabated through the 2020 election.
As Bill Bishop pointed out in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, the big political story of the last twenty years is the rapidly growing number of "landslide counties," that is, counties in which one party beats the other by more than 20 percentage points. In 1992, when Bill Clinton ran against George Bush, Sr., 38% of voters lived in such counties. In 2016, 60% did.
While we don't yet have the map yet for 2020, the blue or red share of this map seems certain to expand.
As regional polarization intensifies, a parallel trend is the growing and lopsided urban-rural divide between the balance of counties tipping blue or red. Democrats keep gaining ever-larger majorities in a shrinking number of the most populated counties. And the Republicans keep gaining at least a slight majority in a growing number less populated counties.
Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton won by a popular-vote margin of 5.6%, he won in 1,582 of the nation's 3,101 counties. That's 51% of all counties in an era, to be sure, when much of the rural south was still able to embrace a moderate, native-son Democrat.
By 2008, when Barack Obama won by a larger popular-vote margin (7.3%), he won only 875 of the nation's counties. That's 28%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got a popular-vote margin of 2.1%, while winning only 490 counties. That's 16%.
Joe Biden, whose vote margin will likely be more than twice as large as Hillary's, may nevertheless win fewer than 550 counties, or just 18% of all counties. Consider that Jimmy Carter, when he got buried by Ronald Reagan in 1980 (who beat him by a 9.7% popular-vote margin), still won in 900 counties!
Yes, these Biden counties are by far the most populous. They will have much higher per-capita incomes and per-capita graduate degrees. And the BEA will credit them with generating most of America's GDP. Hillary Clinton consoled herself after the 2016 election by announcing that "I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product... the places that are optimistic, dynamic, moving forward."
Still, 18% of all counties is a strikingly low number. And the suggestion that dollars and dynamism make up for a shrinking number of communities is an awkward claim for a leader of the demos.
The growing urban concentration of one party's electorate--and the growing rural deconcentration of the other's--is striking to say the least. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson disagreed with each other on pretty much everything. But it would be hard to imagine either of these founders feeling comfortable about such an extreme regionalization of "faction."
The good news is that we're all politically engaged. The bad news is that we're engaged because we're all profoundly worried about where this is heading.