Democrats’ midterm edge: more political activity, bigger growth in voter turnout

An awful lot of voters are lining up for Team Blue this year.

With midterm elections less than two months away, it’s becoming clear that important positive factors such as greatly increased voter turnout and greater voter political engagement are pointing to an advantage for Democrats.

The primary season is almost over, and there has been greater overall growth in the number of Democratic voters than there has been for Republicans. At the same time, more Democrats are attending rallies, donating to campaigns, protesting, volunteering for candidates, and contacting elected officials.

And while Republican voting totals also are up in some states, it’s obvious that the greater momentum is on the Democratic side. This matches the voter enthusiasm since Donald Trump took office: 43 state legislative seats have flipped from red to blue. Even in congressional special elections in traditional GOP districts where the Republican candidate won, once-huge partisan voter gaps have narrowed to single digits.

An NPR story reported that the higher increases in turnout on the Democratic side match the voter enthusiasm of previous wave elections, such as when Democrats took over the House in 2006.

Democrats saw a 78 percent increase in turnout compared to the 2014 midterm election. Republicans, meanwhile, saw an uptick of 23 percent. That’s based on available data from 35 states that [Republican pollster John] Couvillon studied. And among those states, 29 had better Democratic gains in turnout than four years ago, with only six states having higher Republican turnout between the parties since the last midterm elections.

Democratic turnout accounted for 53 percent of primary ballots cast this year in those 35 states. In 2006 – the last time Democrats took control of the House – they made up 54 percent of the primary ballots.

Given voter suppression tactics and gerrymandered districts that favor the GOP, Democrats will need all of that 53 percent — and more — to turn all of this voter energy into wins on Nov. 6.

The changes in voting numbers vary by state, but some of the increases in Democratic totals are truly startling. According to the numbers in the NPR story:

Minnesota saw one of the biggest surges in Democratic ballots cast in the primary this year — a 206 percent increase from 2014. The state has four competitive House races this year, including two Twin Cities-area seats that Democrats hope to flip and two open Democratic-held seats on turf in districts President Trump carried by double digits two years ago. While the uptick in turnout is good news for Democrats, Republicans can hope that the 74 percent increase on their side will keep things competitive.

In two important Midwestern states with multiple House seats up for grabs, Democratic turnout spiked while Republican turnout actually dropped from 2014 levels. In Illinois — where there are four seats that the Cook Political Report rates as competitive — there was a 170 percent increase in Democratic ballots, while Republicans saw a 12 percent dip. And in Iowa, where as many as three of its four congressional races are competitive, Democrats had a 154 percent increase in turnout, while Republicans saw a 36 percent decrease.

Even in Texas, where so many Lone Star State Democrats hope for a victory for Beto O’Rourke over incumbent Ted Cruz in the Senate race, Democratic voting was up by 88 percent, compared with only a 16 percent jump in Republican voters.

And while GOP turnout was up in several places, Republican voter turnout actually fell in 29 of 35 state primaries from 2014 to 2018. But in some states, such as West Virginia and North Dakota, GOP turnout went up more than Democratic turnout, which could spell trouble for Democratic incumbents Joe Manchin and (especially) Heidi Heitkamp.

Besides voting, voter engagement is a key measurement that points to a Democratic advantage. A recent survey from Pew Research found that “voters who back Democratic candidates for Congress are reporting higher levels of political activity than GOP voters.”

Among registered voters who favor the Democratic candidate in their House district, 22% say they have attended a political event, compared with just 8% of those who support the Republican candidate.

The differences are more modest in the shares saying they have donated to political campaigns; still, 23% of Democratic voters say they have done this in the past year compared with 18% of Republican voters. Democratic voters are also more likely to have contacted an elected official (36% vs. 28%) and volunteered for a campaign (9% vs. 5%).

The Pew report adds that Republicans are slightly more likely to have expressed support for a candidate through social media, 39 percent to 35 percent, while Democrats are more likely to have expressed opposition to a candidate on social media, 35 percent to 31 percent.

There aren’t many gender differences in political engagement in the two parties. But in terms of education levels, college-educated Democratic voters win the prize. Nearly two-thirds of such voters who support the Democratic candidate in their House district say they have done at least one of the following: attended an event, donated money, contacted an official, or volunteered for a campaign.

Democrats also have a money advantage — on paper, anyway, including the amount of cash on hand. According to the latest overall figures on campaign donations from Open Secrets, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats held the money edge in both House and Senate contests. The totals as of early September were $621 million for Democratic House races vs. $470 million for GOP House races and $368 million for Democratic Senate races vs. $268 million for GOP Senate races.

Some caveats: These figures represent all the races so far, for primary as well as general election spending, and there were more Democratic candidates in contested races. And Republicans hold a big advantage in PAC money and huge funding from GOP mega-donors such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers.

One question both sides definitely agree on: According to the Pew survey, both Democrats (78 percent) and Republicans (75 percent) say that partisan control of Congress is crucial. We’ll have to wait until Nov. 7 to see which side pushed its candidates — and its voters — harder.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 9, 2018.

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