Editor’s Note: Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She is a staff writer at The Dispatch and an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She previously worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and graduated from Harvard Law School. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
More than 86 million Americans have already voted in the 2020 presidential election. And, according to at least one turnout model, we are on track to see a record 157 million people vote in 2020. To give you an idea of just what a big shift that would be, in 2016, there were about 157 million people who reported being registered to vote, according to US census data.
But what does this mean, and how does it help us think about the outcome of this year’s election?
First, record turnout means the polls are more likely to be accurate this time around. Pollsters have a perpetual problem because they don’t know who will actually show up to vote. So, while a poll may accurately reflect the views of a representative sample of Floridian voters, it won’t be a good gauge of an election outcome unless it can also account for whether one candidate’s supporters are more likely to vote than the other.
Asking people whether they are likely to vote or even looking at their voter history can only tell you so much. We saw this in 2016 when many polls failed to account for high turnout among non-college educated White voters, which increased, according to one estimate, by 3% over 2012 and contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.
This is why record turnout numbers, like we are seeing in states across the country, are great for pollsters. The closer the number of actual voters gets to the number of potential voters, the more accurate the polls that survey likely voters should become.
Second, the record early turnout numbers mean that the final week of campaign rallies will likely have even less of an impact on driving voters to the poll than in past cycles. However, those rallies can shed some light on a campaign’s internal polling numbers.
The two candidates have employed vastly different campaign tactics in 2020.
Trump is famous for his raucous rallies – and despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines encouraging small gatherings and social distancing – hosted about 20,000 people at an event in a Charlotte suburb last week. On the other hand, Vice President Joe Biden, who has emphasized that he is abiding by the health guidelines, is not even trying to compete. He had his largest campaign event to date in Georgia, and, according to the Secret Service, 375 cars and 771 people were at the event.
Readers have asked me whether this rally attendance gap means the polls can’t possibly be accurate and that the President will be re-elected in a landslide. But here’s the thing: Rallies, like yard signs, aren’t actually a good gauge of candidate enthusiasm. They may not even have any effect on turnout. Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, studied the effects of campaign rallies in 2016 and found “the relative number of campaign trips to a state by Trump and Clinton had no effect on the results.”
Instead, candidate’s events in the final days of a campaign may tell us more about their internal poll numbers than anything else. Despite national polls showing Hillary Clinton leading by up to six points in Michigan heading into November, her campaign added a last-minute stop to Grand Rapids the weekend before the election.
That was the clearest indication that the Clinton campaign likely saw internal polling that the Rust Belt blue wall might not be so secure. A candidate’s time is their most valuable resource in those final days, and a campaign doesn’t send its candidate to a state that it believes the candidate is winning by six points with just days left to go. Clinton ultimately lost the state by a small margin.
This time around, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are keeping a relatively relaxed schedule and expanding their visits to traditional red states like Georgia and Texas in the final days of the race. Trump, on the other hand, visited Nebraska this week, signaling that his campaign believes they may need the single vote out of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District to get over the finish line. In 2016, Trump won the district by a small two-point margin; this time, national polls show Biden with a healthy lead heading into next week.
Third, record turnout means there’s a lot of first-time and infrequent voters casting their ballots, which can increase the risk that the election ends up in court. A study by NPR found that 550,000 ballots were rejected in the presidential primaries this year. Over 23,000 were rejected in Wisconsin alone, more than the margin of Trump’s 2016 victory in the state. And we know that first-time voters are more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected for common errors like forgetting to sign their ballot or sending it in too late.
Both parties have already been to the Supreme Court several times this year trying to set the rules for whether states can accept ballots if they arrive after Election Day or are missing a postmark. If the margin of victory in any of these states is within the number of rejected absentee ballots this year, we can expect heated court cases to ensure that ballots are counted uniformly.
All that being said, we don’t yet know how many Americans will vote this year – and there are plenty of reasons to believe that a lot of Election Day voters are simply choosing to vote early this year.
But if we are headed toward the kind of record turnout that the experts are predicting, democratic participation may be the one silver lining of an otherwise abysmal 2020.