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Increased Voter Turnout Could Benefit Republicans Or Democrats In 2020

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the Week

Most polls survey people who are either registered — or at least likely — to vote, but a new Knight Foundation poll interviewed over 12,000 people who don’t vote.

These are people who are eligible but not registered to vote, or who are registered but rarely vote. Nonvoters make up a sizable percentage of the eligible voting-age population, too — about 100 million people, or 43 percent. But they’re kind of a mystery. We know a fair bit about these nonvoters demographically — they’re young, less educated and a bit poorer than the electorate — but they could be hugely influential if they actually turned out. After all, the share of voters who didn’t vote in 2016 was larger than the share of voters that voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

It’s not entirely clear, though, which party would benefit if they did vote in 2020. “Conventional wisdom has been that if all nonvoters turned up to vote there would be an overwhelming win for the Democratic Party,” said Evette Alexander, a director at the Knight Foundation who participated in the survey design. “But I think what we’re seeing in the survey is that both parties can and should try to engage. There is room for both parties to engage nonvoters and to both have turnout increase.” Here are some insights into who these nonvoters are:

1. Nonvoters are less white, less educated, poorer, younger and more likely to be women than those who do vote. So based on demographics alone, nonvoters sound like a large pool of potential Democratic voters, as Democrats tend to skew younger and more racially diverse than Republicans. But this doesn’t account for how the makeup of nonvoters can vary pretty dramatically from state to state. A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll conducted in six battleground states last fall found, for instance, that less educated white voters were overrepresented among nonvoters in battleground states and were more likely to vote for Trump. The Times also found in that survey that while black voters are a huge source of support for Democrats, those who hadn’t voted in recent elections weren’t necessarily likely to vote Democratic. The Knight Foundation survey provided further evidence that Democrats may not hold an edge in reaching nonvoters, as it found that factors like education and income were more important in predicting whether someone was a nonvoter than factors like race and gender, and those factors worked in Trump’s favor in the last presidential election.

2. Nonvoters lean slightly Democratic overall, but they favor President Trump in some key states. The poll also asked nonvoters who they would vote for if they were to vote, and found they were almost evenly split — 33 percent say they would vote for the Democratic nominee, 30 percent say they would vote for Trump and 18 percent say they would vote for someone else. However, this breakdown varied quite a bit in battleground states, which Knight sampled heavily. Nevada’s “chronic nonvoters,”1 for example, split evenly, but those in Pennsylvania and Florida skewed heavily toward Trump while those in Georgia would skew Democratic if they all voted.

Nonvoters lean toward Trump in some key states

Vote preference for nonvoters (people eligible to vote but are not registered, and those who are registered but have voted only once in the last six national elections)

State President Trump Democratic Nominee Lean
Alabama 34% 25% R+9
Pennsylvania 36 28 R+8
Florida 36 31 R+5
Virginia 35 31 R+4
New Hampshire 30 29 R+1
Minnesota 29 29 0
Nevada 33 33 0
Michigan 31 32 D+1
Wisconsin 31 33 D+2
Georgia 29 34 D+5

The survey did not distinguish between nonvoters who plan to vote in the 2020 general election and those who do not.

Source: Knight Foundation

3. It’s possible that some of these nonvoters will vote in 2020. A large majority of nonvoters (71 percent) say they plan to vote in 2020, and 55 percent express “absolute certainty” that they will vote this year. Of course, even though enthusiasm is relatively high in 2020, that doesn’t mean everyone who says they’re interested in voting will ultimately cast a ballot. Alexander told FiveThirtyEight that the question was intended only to measure enthusiasm, not to predict turnout. She explained that most nonvoters were probably still unlikely to turn out, but the fact that so many expressed an interest shows that there is a group — especially among those who follow news more closely, are more educated and have higher incomes — that could be persuaded.

4. Many nonvoters say the main reason they don’t vote is because they feel disengaged. While some chronic nonvoters could turn out, the Knight Foundation poll also asked an open-ended question about why nonvoters choose not to vote. The two most common responses were nonvoters don’t like the candidates (17 percent) or they think their vote doesn’t matter (12 percent). Among those who are not registered to vote, a plurality (29 percent) said that they’re simply not interested or don’t care. Reaching nonvoters could be difficult as well. Seventy-three percent of voters said they actively seek out news and information, while only 56 percent of nonvoters said so. The rest said that they “mostly bump into news and information as [they] do other things or hear about it from others.”

The results of the poll indicate that an overall increase in turnout may not be an overwhelming benefit to either side, but either Trump or the Democratic nominee could benefit from finding ways to activate the nonvoters who are more likely to vote for them. Activating nonvoters could be a difficult and expensive venture for campaigns, though, and many nonvoters may still ultimately not turn out, but if 2020 is an especially close election, who doesn’t turn out could matter a whole lot. If both parties work to reach disengaged Americans and convince people that their vote matters, that would be a “win for democracy,” said Alexander.

Other Polling Bites

  • Democrats in Nevada will be caucusing on Saturday, and FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast gives Sen. Bernie Sanders a 3 in 4 chance of winning the most votes. Sanders also leads in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average with 27 percent support, but Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll and recent polls are scarce. Of the five polls we have from February, Sanders has anywhere from a double-digit margin to a 6-point deficit in a poll in which billionaire Tom Steyer leads the pack.
  • Sen. Susan Collins of Maine could face a competitive race this fall, according to a Colby College poll of registered voters in the state. Forty-two percent of respondents said they would vote for Collins, while 43 percent said they would vote for Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat challenging Collins for her seat.
  • In Wednesday’s debate, the Democratic candidates (with one notable exception) subtly and not-so-subtly argued that nominating someone who identifies as a Democratic socialist could spook general election voters. And while 50 percent of Democrats have a favorable impression of socialism, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 27 percent of registered voters do. A whopping 60 percent do not have a favorable view of socialism, so this could be an issue for Sanders moving forward.
  • Roger Stone, a former Trump advisor, was sentenced on Thursday to more than three years in prison after being convicted of making false statements to Congress and witness tampering during a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And perhaps unsurprisingly, given how split Republicans and Democrats were on the merits of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election, views about the conviction were split along party lines. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans said Stone’s trial and conviction was more a case of “political prosecution” than proper law enforcement, compared with 12 percent of Democrats, according to a poll from The Economist/YouGov.
  • According to a Pew Research Center survey, Americans are now just as likely to say that the president and Congress should make protecting the environment a top priority (64 percent) as they are to say building a strong economy (67 percent). Both Democrats and Republicans seem to be driving this change, too. Eighty-five percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans say protecting the environment should be a top concern, up from 62 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in 2016.
  • The Houston Astros dropped from ninth to dead last in net favorability among all 30 MLB teams in a Morning Consult poll. The poll surveyed adults before and after the league released a report last month outlining how the team had been cheating for years by using electronics to steal pitchers’ signs in violation of MLB rules. Your humble correspondent has roots in Houston, but condemns cheating in sports.
  • 57 percent of registered voters in Georgia say they prefer Chick-fil-A over other fast-food chicken restaurants, according to a University of Georgia poll. Just 19 percent of respondents said they preferred Zaxby’s, and 14 percent Popeyes. Democrats and Republicans both preferred Chick-fil-A over the other restaurants, too, but there was still a partisan split with 70 percent of Republicans putting Chick-fil-A as their No. 1 choice compared with only 46 percent of Democrats.
  • Iranian parliamentary elections will be held on Friday. Public opinion polls for the elections are scant, but the ones we did find, including one poll from the Iranian Students Polling Agency conducted in January, hint that turnout may be low in Tehran Province. The Guardian Council, a powerful body currently dominated by conservative politicians, has disqualified thousands of candidates, including 92 sitting lawmakers, from running in the election. Some Iranians have called for a boycott, labeling the election a sham.

Trump Approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 44.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 51.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -7.5 points). At this time last week, 43.9 percent approved and 51.8 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -7.9 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -12.0 points.

Generic Ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.4 percentage points (47.7 percent to 41.3 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 5.7 points (47.2 percent to 41.5 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.7 points (46.9 percent to 41.2 percent).


  1. Defined in the report as registered voters who participated in zero or one of the last six presidential or midterm elections between November 2008 and November 2018.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.