As we get closer to the end of primary season, practitioners are weighing what turnout patterns mean for their clients in November.
On the Democrats side, the argument is that a more engaged electorate means big things this November. Republican backers tend to point to states like Ohio where turnout was higher for Republican candidates, or to the results of congressional specials, which they’ve won despite close votes.
While there might be disagreement on what the tea leaves say, there’s no refuting the fact that there’s been higher voter turnout in this year’s primaries than in the last midterms. In fact, the Pew Research Center put out a report detailing the rise in voter participation levels that gives a helpful guide to what we’re seeing in the numbers.
Across the board, there have been more voters turning out in this year’s primaries than four year ago. But these patterns aren’t just one sided. Indeed, both parties are enjoying a larger number of voters turning out.
So far, there have been 6.2 million more Democratic voters in congressional races this cycle compared to 2014. While on the GOP side, the bump has been just 1.9 million. The cause for the disparity in these increases isn’t simply the average American paying more attention to politics, or a riled up base. The number of contested races seems to, not surprisingly, have a big effect.
In 2014 there were 251 contested primaries, according to Pew. That number has increased to 340 this cycle. Still, this increase hasn’t been uniform. The total number of contested Democratic primaries rose from 122 to 203 — a 66-percent increase — while contested Republican primaries have increased by just 7 percent.
In 2014, on average, there were 35,246 Democratic voters per contested congressional primary compared to 44,186 on the Republican side. This year, those numbers jumped to 48,768 Democratic voters and 51,095 Republican voters, per contested district. This represents a 38-percent increase per contested district for Democrats, and a little less than 16-percent increase for Republicans.
The increase is good news for Democrats. On the flip side, the GOP is still turning out more voters, on average, for contested congressional primaries.
To muddy the waters a little more, if you look at the senatorial or gubernatorial races across the country, the rate of increase is fairly consistent for both parties. In Senate races, 2.5 million more Democratic voters turned out this year compared to 2 million more Republicans.
In governor’s races, 2.9 million more voters turned out on the Democratic side, compared to 3.6 million more Republicans. This represents about a 33-percent increase for both parties. But according to Pew, the number of contested primaries jumped from four in 2014 to 12 this year – a whopping 200-percent increase. While the whole of these increases cannot simply be pinned on the increased number of contested primaries, it does play a key role in explaining the larger voter participation.
What does this all mean for November? The honest answer is, well, who knows?
While there are certainly more Democratic voters out and participating in their competitive primaries, don’t count out Republicans just because they don’t show the same levels of increase in participation. They still have done a pretty good job of mobilizing their voters, even with a relative lack of competitive primaries in the House. In fact, they’ve done a slightly better job in the statewide primaries discussed above.
That isn’t to say that all of these changes in competition and voters couldn’t bode well for Democrats. Similar voting patterns occurred in the 2010 primaries and that led to a very strong Republican showing in those midterms.
Now, conditions remain the same between 2010 and 2018. A new opposition party leader took over the presidency after a two-term incumbency and the dissatisfied party (Republicans in 2010, Democrats in 2018) has energized in response. Considering how much the GOP won by in 2010, these signs would predict Democratic success come this fall. But this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison given redistricting and the data discussed above.
At the end of the day, a lot of this primary energy can be attributed to the large increase of contested primaries producing heated competitive environments. Moreover, the mirroring of the 2010 Republican midterm surge isn’t an exact replica, as the GOP showed much more energy in their 2010 primaries than Democrats are showing now.
As we have mentioned before, a Blue Wave in 2018 doesn’t seem to be the most probable outcome. Right now, the most likely outcome still remains a closely divided House, although the Democrats probably have a slight edge on the question of which party is most likely to control the chamber in January 2019. A big wave does seem more likely than a successful night for Republicans, which right now seems incredibly remote as a potential outcome.
There are still over three months to go, and a lot of variables left to be fleshed out. But one thing we’re feeling confident about is that if anyone is using primary turnout statistics as a predictor of how well the Democrats or Republicans will do this November, be skeptical.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.