Midterm turnout surges for both parties

Midterm turnout surges for both parties
© Getty Images

A surge in voter enthusiasm has prompted millions more Democrats to cast ballots in primary elections this year, a turnout explosion ahead of midterms in which motivation to vote is key to the party's chances of reclaiming control of the House.

However, Republican voters also are showing up in higher numbers than in previous midterm cycles, a sign that the GOP's fate will be sealed not by apathetic conservatives who sit out Election Day, but by voters open to persuasion from both parties.

The Hill's analysis of primary elections held in 30 states so far, through Tuesday night's contests, shows voters in both parties are turning out in higher numbers than in either of the last two midterm elections.

ADVERTISEMENT

Almost 13.8 million people have voted in Democratic primary contests this year — 5 million more than the 8.7 million who had voted in the same states in the 2014 midterm elections, according to data maintained by state elections offices.

On the other side, 12.3 million people have picked up a Republican ballot so far this year — 2 million more people than the 10.3 million who had cast ballots in a GOP primary in the same 30 states four years ago.

"Republicans are engaged as well," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. "It's not like the Republicans have become completely disengaged from elections, that's not what's happening here."

The current turnout numbers almost certainly underestimate the amount of Democratic and Republican votes this year. Election data from prior years come from official canvasses produced by state elections offices, whereas the 2018 election data relies on unofficial results, before every absentee and provisional ballot is counted, meaning final tallies are likely to increase.

Voter turnout and targeting experts on both sides said this year's figures represent a clear boost in enthusiasm on the Democratic side over the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans won control of the Senate and boosted their majority in the House.

"Democrats are clearly energized, and enjoying a larger enthusiasm gap than they've enjoyed since 2006," said Tom Bonier, a Democratic microtargeting expert who runs the firm TargetSmart. "That said, there's no evidence that Republicans are demoralized. They simply aren't seeing a surge in engagement as significant as the Democratic intensity."

At the same time, those experts said, there is little indication that a boost in primary turnout — among either side's partisans — portends a rush to the polls in November. Instead, some suggested, it's likely a sign of further polarization of both parties' bases.

Voter intensity has been pronounced in a handful of states considered key battlegrounds for November.

In Texas, more than 1 million people voted in March's Democratic primary, compared with 560,000 who did so four years ago. Republicans cast more ballots, 1.5 million, and their turnout was 200,000 more than it was in 2014.

In California, where Democrats are targeting House GOP districts that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonState Dept: Russia’s allegations about American citizens ‘absolutely absurd’ Trump on possible sit-down with Mueller: 'I've always wanted to do an interview' Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE won in 2016, more than 4.1 million people cast ballots for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in this month's primary, while 2.4 million Republicans cast a ballot. Both parties improved on their 2014 numbers, when the race for governor was a sleepier affair, but Democrats still cast 1.6 million more ballots than the GOP, a margin 1 million larger than their advantage in the 2014 primary.


In the 30 states where primary elections are comparable across midterm races, Democrats improved their relative performance against Republicans in 20 of them. Democrats boosted their margins by more than 100,000 votes in states ranging from deep-red Georgia and Kentucky to swing states like Iowa and Colorado, and even in blue states like New Jersey and Maryland.

Republicans have improved their margins most in states where the party litigated costly primary fights, driving up turnout among GOP voters eager to weigh in on their party's future direction.

Republicans cast almost twice as many votes in Indiana, where they chose former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) to challenge Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Fed chief lays out risks of trade war Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (D), who was unopposed in the Democratic primary. The GOP also saw primary gains relative to Democrats in Alabama, South Dakota, North Dakota and Virginia — all of which featured competitive Republican primaries without a corresponding Democratic primary.

Republicans saw their biggest increase in turnout in Pennsylvania, where the party picked former state Sen. Scott Wagner (R) and Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaElection Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race Midterm turnout surges for both parties Poll: Incumbent Dem leads Pennsylvania Senate race by 15 MORE (R) to face Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyCongress should build upon the ABLE Act, giving more Americans with disabilities access to financial tools Senate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds MORE Jr. (D), respectively.

In the state's uncontested Democratic primaries, 749,000 people cast ballots, down from the 845,000 who voted in the contested 2014 gubernatorial primary. On the GOP side, 737,000 people chose Republican ballots, almost double the 373,000 who voted in the same election in 2014, when then-Gov. Tom Corbett (R) faced no primary opposition.

Some observers say those intrastate quirks make year-to-year comparisons difficult.

"Primaries I don't think are so indicative of turnout in the general election, because primaries are idiosyncratic affairs," McDonald said.

Midterm turnout has generally fallen in recent years, according to data McDonald maintains at the United States Elections Project. Just 35.9 percent of the voting-eligible population showed up to vote in 2014, the lowest participation rate in any midterm year since 1942.

Midterm turnout has not topped 45 percent since 1970, and the last time more than half the voting-eligible population turned out in a midterm was back in 1914 — before the national voting-eligible population included women.


So perhaps rebounding from an historical nadir is to be expected, especially in an age of hyperpartisan engagement. Surveys indicate voters are more enthusiastic about showing up to vote this year, both among Democrats and Republicans, and that they are paying more attention to political news than they have in the past.

"It's likely we'll see all recent records for midterm turnout broken," Bonier said. "Functionally, this also means that any poll that doesn't account for this heightened level of enthusiasm could miss the mark by a wide margin."

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about voting in midterm elections than ever before, a level far higher than in 2010 and 2014, when they were crushed at the polls. Half of Republicans said they were similarly more enthusiastic than in previous years, a level 20 points higher than their low point in 2006, when Democrats reclaimed the majority in both chambers.

“In this case, you have both parties that seem to be pretty energized,” said Carroll Doherty, the Pew Research Center’s director of political research. “The voters have a sense, even early on, that the stakes are high in this election.” 

In the absence of an economic or foreign crisis dominating headlines, the primary vote totals and survey results suggest voters are motivated more by partisan ideology — and especially their feelings about President TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE.

The Pew poll found more than two-thirds of voters, including 73 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans, say a factor when casting their ballot will be which party controls Congress, marking the highest level of interest in a partisan outcome since Pew began asking that question back in 1998.

Sixty percent of voters say Trump himself will play a motivating role in their votes, either positive or negative — significantly higher than the percentage of voters who said they were voting either for or against former Presidents Obama or George W. Bush at their respective low points in 2010 and 2006.