Huge turnout raises Dem hopes for a wave

New poll results and a surge of younger and first-time voters heading to the polls in the days leading up to Election Day have Democrats considering the possibility that a big blue wave is about to crest over the midterm elections.
 
For months, polls have showed voters — both Democrats and, especially in recent weeks, Republicans — are enthusiastic about the midterm elections, excited to show up and cast a ballot. 
 
Now, actual results are proving those polls correct. More than 34 million people have already cast their votes early or by absentee ballot.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
That is a more than 50-percent increase over the total number of early votes cast in the 2014 midterm elections, an unprecedented spike in which voter turnout in some states is rivaling typical turnout levels in a presidential year.
 
Turnout is up among all age cohorts, racial groups and educational categories. Older voters still make up a disproportionately large segment of the electorate. 
 
But turnout has increased the most among younger voters, minorities and people who rarely or never vote. Among voters aged 18-29, turnout is up in 39 of 41 states for which data is available, said John Della Volpe, who directs polling for Harvard University's Institute of Politics. For voters aged 30-39, turnout is up in all 41 states where data is available.
 
As a consequence, the 2018 electorate appears likely to be significantly younger and more diverse than the electorate that voted four years ago — both good signs for Democratic candidates.
 
In a typical year, party strategists say the voters who take advantage of early voting opportunities were overwhelmingly likely to vote anyway. But there are increasing signs that millions of voters who have rarely or never voted before are turning out. 
 
"These are voters who typically don't vote in midterms," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "There's about 10 percent of the electorate that's completely brand new."
 
An analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, found more than 6 million people who have voted already rarely vote in midterms, and almost 1.6 million more are first-time voters.
 
The number of infrequent and first-time voters are both more than twice as high as the number of those voters who turned out in 2014.
 
"The numbers are insane," TargetSmart chief executive Tom Bonier said Saturday. "There's so much for a Democrat to be optimistic about — young people, women, first-time voters."
 
Both Democrats and Republicans have turned up in greater numbers than in years past, though Democratic gains are outpacing Republican gains. Democratic turnout has grown 56 percent in early and absentee voting over 2014, according to the TargetSmart data. Republican turnout is up 37 percent, still healthy growth by any measure.
 
"Donald Trump is good for interest in government," said Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist who worries about his party's performance among younger voters. "Trump is good for turnout, for both sides of the aisle."
 
ADVERTISEMENT
But higher turnout, Siegfried said, can change the fundamental calculations that show Democrats with a lead over Republicans on the so-called generic ballot by the high single digits. Pollsters use past turnout and current assumptions about voter enthusiasm to estimate what the electorate will look like — which means that a disproportionately young and new electorate may throw off their estimates.
 
"The real question is, have the polling models gotten the turnout right and accounted for the surge in voter registration we've seen among millennials and younger voters," Siegfried said. "If they haven't, then this could potentially be a gigantic tsunami."
 
In some states, available data from early voting shows a completely different electorate than that which fueled Republican gains in 2014.
 
In Texas, Rottinghaus pointed to data that shows more than 421,000 people have voted this year for the first time, nearly four times higher than the number of first-time voters who cast a ballot in 2014. This year, voters between the ages of 18 and 39 made up a little less than a quarter of the total Texas early vote; four years ago, those voters made up just 13 percent of the electorate.
 
In Arizona, young voters have grown to 17 percent of the electorate, up from 10 percent in 2014. The number of Hispanic voters casting early ballots doubled, while the share of the electorate that is white is down 3.5 percentage points. The number of infrequent and new voters who cast ballots this year have both more than doubled.
 
In Georgia, voters between the ages of 18 and 39 account for more than 21 percent of the early voting total, up almost 10 percentage points from 2014. Young voters in Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin have also grown dramatically as a share of the electorate.
 
Harvard's Della Volpe said that some campaigns can juice turnout among younger and infrequent voters if they make a concerted effort. But what's different this time, he said, is that irregular voters are showing up in states that are not at the epicenter of the 2018 battleground — a possible suggestion that some larger change in the electorate is afoot.
 
"This is happening in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and places around the country that are not the targets of national Democrats," Della Volpe said. "The chances I think that we see historic levels of youth participation are probably better than not."
 
In the first election in more than a decade in which the economy is not voters' top concern, the final polls conducted before Election Day show more voters say they trust Democrats than Republicans to handle key issues like health care and immigration — the two areas of greatest concern to the electorate.
 
And after rising slightly over the last month, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks MORE's approval rating has begun to ebb once again, according to both Democrats and Republicans watching private polling in the race's final days.
 
Still, Democrats are leery of popping the champagne corks before the votes are in. One top Democratic strategist, asked about the prospects of a wave breaking toward her party in a phone interview Sunday, immediately and audibly knocked on wood.
 
"I was optimistic in '16 too," Bonier said.