Color me skeptical, but let’s first take a look at Reuters’ case. In their meta-analysis of their own polling series over the past four years, a “blue wave” of voter enthusiasm in urban areas is rising as the election draws closer, one that will outpace a redder rise in enthusiasm in suburbs and rural areas. That will reverse the dynamic of 2016 and likely make Donald Trump a one-and-done president:
In large urban areas of the upper Midwest, a region that includes swing states Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, the number of people who said they were “certain” to vote in the upcoming presidential election rose by 10 percentage points to 67% compared with survey responses from 2015.
In smaller upper Midwest communities, the number of people similarly dedicated to voting rose by only about 1 point to 60% in that same four-year period.
Overall, the number of “certain” voters rose by 7 percentage points nationally from 2015 to 2019. It increased by more than that in the largest metropolitan areas, rising by 9 points in communities with between 1 million and 5 million people and 8 points in metros with at least 5 million people.
Smaller and rural communities lagged behind. The number of “certain” voters rose by 5 points in sparsely populated, Republican-dominated “non-metro” areas.
First point of skepticism: This is all built only on one polling set, Reuters’ own. For a broad conclusion about a “blue wave,” it would be evident in other polling. It’s not that it isn’t possible, but it’s that one needs more and diverse evidence to completely buy into it.
Why? We already have evidence to the contrary — hard evidence about the status quo, not polling trends. Let’s consider skepticism point two — turnout in the first two primaries. If there really is a rising “blue wave” of enthusiasm, why didn’t it manifest itself in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Democratic primary turnout fell far short of expectations? Not only did the large and diverse field fail to set turnout records as predicted, in both states they barely got back to 2016 levels, when voter enthusiasm was at an ebb. It’s true that neither state has a really large urban center, but by that definition neither does most of the Midwest either.
Skepticism point three: who did exhibit enthusiasm in those two states? It wasn’t Democrats, as Politico’s Alex Isenstadt noted on Sunday:
The massive turnout is a reflection of organic enthusiasm among conservatives and a sophisticated effort by Trump’s campaign to rev up its get-out-the-vote machine ahead of the general election. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of voting, and the campaign flooded the two states with high-profile surrogates and launched a Facebook advertising blitz reminding supporters to cast ballots.
The efforts are paying off, with Republicans turning out in historic numbers. Trump received more than 31,000 votes in the Iowa caucus, surpassing the 25,000 Democrats who turned out during Barack Obama’s successful 2012 reelection bid. Trump’s share was more than four times the number of Republicans who caucused during George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.
The vote totals in New Hampshire were even starker. The president received 129,696 votes, more than doubling Obama and Bush’s totals.
It’s still early, but the disparity is tough to ignore, especially while claiming an enthusiasm gap favoring Democrats. Trump might not be the most personally popular president ever, but he has voters champing at the bit to turn out even when it doesn’t matter at all.
That brings us to skepticism point four: organization. That was Trump’s weakness in 2016, but these early primary results suggest that Team Trump and the RNC have actually delivered on promises to build a powerful GOTV machine ahead of the 2020 general election, as I write in my column for The Week:
It’s still early in the process, and both Iowa and New Hampshire are relatively small states that stand alone in the primaries. Trump counterprogrammed against Democrats in both states with splashy rallies to energize his base on the eve of the contests, which might have driven those numbers higher. He will likely do the same in Nevada and South Carolina to compete with Democratic messaging and leverage the media focus on those states into enthusiasm and turnout.
That makes Super Tuesday on March 3rd a potentially good test of the Trump turnout machine and whether these are rally effects or a significant measure of Trump/RNC organization. Fifteen states will hold their presidential-preference contests on March 3rd, all primaries rather than caucuses, and Trump can’t be in 15 places at once in the day or two before these contest. If he’s still getting record turnout of Republican primary voters in those states, then Democrats had better be very, very worried, perhaps on the cusp of a full-blown panic.
Trump’s biggest problem in 2016 was organization. He only adopted a traditional get-out-the-vote model late with the RNC, which had built its Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI) to operate independently of the nominee, a project on which I reported at length in my book Going Red. Democrats still have yet to adopt a similar approach, even after Clinton failed to turn out Obama’s bonus voters in the blue-wall states, which was the main reason why Trump won the election.
The RLI has been rechristened the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative, but the question remains as to whether Trump has truly adopted its bottom-up granular approach to electioneering. These primary turnout numbers might be the first evidence of its success in two states that the RLI specifically targeted. Watch for Super Tuesday results from Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia especially to check whether those GOP turnout numbers remain high. If so, then Democrats might need to hit the panic button — especially if their own turnout numbers remain pedestrian.
This might be the sleeper trend of the season thus far. I suspect that the TVLI has become more of a factor than people might have imagined — and that it’s going to matter far more than urban-centered enthusiasm in states Trump would likely lose anyway. That “wave” might end up looking more like a wipeout.