Statewide Turnout: Not Good, And Going To Get Worse

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Given all the attention that the recent Democratic primaries generated, you’d assume that if we compared county by county Election Day turnout by party in 2008 and 2016, you’d see a big benefit for Democrats. And you’d further assume that early voting would show a further edge for our side.

You’d be wrong in both cases. The increased turnout – everywhere other than Baltimore City, which had the added bonus of a mayoral primary – was driven entirely by increased GOP turnout. And Republicans have proved to be much better consumers of the conveniences of early voting than have Democrats.

Three spreadsheets tell the tale. The first is Democratic turnout by county, comparing 2008 and 2016. One caveat: this data only includes early vote and Election Day data, because (1) absentee data wasn’t available and I haven’t added it in yet; and (2) because 2008 was the last election with no early voting, so isolating on that number is informative.

Several observations: one, early voting has done nothing to increase turnout, but has instead displaced Election Day turnout to early voting. Precinct turnout dropped from 821K to 666K, with 190K early vote. When absentees are added in, there will likely be a very small increase. Baltimore City and Howard County increased overall turnout slightly, but the percentages are down, down, down.

Now let’s look at the same data for the GOP.

Just the opposite. Every county is up, some by substantial numbers. Overall, the increase was over 115K, a 136K edge on Democratic turnout changes from 2008 to 2016. And unlike the Democrats, Republicans INCREASED precinct turnout by almost 25% (71K) while also making solid use of rely voting as well.

Put it all side by side and it’s not pretty. Spreadsheet #3, please.

Remember, this is comparison of two presidential years. The ones we Democrats are supposed to OWN. What do we see? A decided enthusiasm gap, in favor of Republicans – on the most favorable electoral ground for Democrats that we can imagine – presidential year, multiple competitive primaries, high turnout.

What’s this going to look like in 2018? Disaster, if it stays like this. And for any remaining competitive legislative races outside Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore City, forget it. Much of our turnout disappears in gubernatorial years, and with a popular incumbent governor seeking reelection, larger jurisdictions like Baltimore and Anne Arundel County and smaller ones like Carroll, Cecil, Harford, St. Mary’s, Washington and Wicomico, are going to be bloodbaths for Democrats.

So when someone brings up 2016 turnout, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. Because we got beat on enthusiasm and best badly by right wingers super psyched to vote for – Donald Trump. If that doesn’t terrify you on both the state and national levels, nothing will.

So I’m back, and I carry a message: be afraid. Be very afraid. Then get back to work. There’s a lot to do between now and 2018. I’d like to start with something simple: instead of registering more voters who won’t turn out, maybe we should focus on turning out the voters we actually have?

Funny thing, though, I have some bad news on that front, too. But enough gloom and doom for one night.

One thought on “Statewide Turnout: Not Good, And Going To Get Worse

  1. Ed F.

    A wise man once said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. This is an apples to oranges comparison, so it might fit in a few of those categories.

    In 2008, the primary in Maryland was Feb 12. Over 2 months earlier. But, the GOP race was really basically over. It ended on Super Tuesday the week before. Sure, on the Saturday in between, Huckabee had a decent day, 2 draws and a win in caucuses, but the narrative was already done. In some ways, the GOP race then was at the same place as the Dems were in ’16. Barring a major upset that was totally against polls that had McCain up by almost 30%, the campaign was going to be over that day. The Democrats in ’08 were just getting started in the closest race ever. Super Tuesday had been a draw. Excitement drove a huge turnout for Democrats, much more so than we had here in late April this year.

    It’s not surprising that the GOP vote was up in ’16. Trump is a bigger draw both for and against than McCain was. And, it’s not surprising that the Democratic turnout was down, after the result in NY the week before. There was almost no campaigning in Maryland, by either candidate, and the result here was a fait accompli. Also, there was the national narrative that the delegate math was already closing Sanders’ window. So, the turnout isn’t comparable from ’08 to ’16, and if you compare it to the previous somewhat competitive primary in 2004, turnout for the primary was actually up about 80%.

    So, it depends on how you look at it, and you have to be careful about what you’re comparing it to. I agree that this suggests Trump is much more popular in Maryland than past GOP candidates, but is he really going to be competitive in Maryland? Can the GOP be competitive here in a Presidential year?

    There’s one thing I find in the numbers that’s really hopeful — and that’s the number of Democrats. The Democratic Party in Maryland has added over 350,000 people, with YUUGE gains in Montgomery and Prince George’s. In fact, as percentages go, the turnouts in Montgomery and Prince George’s County were awful. That’s because the raw number of voters was down a little, while the number of registered Democrats is much higher now. Montgomery has added 90,000 Democrats — about a 33% increase, if my math skills abide. PG County added over 106,000 Democrats, which was only a slightly smaller percentage increase than Montgomery has seen. Moreover, that 106,000 gain in registered Democrats in Prince George’s County happens to be 6,000 more than the GOP added statewide in those 8 years.

    Democrats have lost ground in some counties, but except for Allegheny and Worcester counties, the fall-off in registration is in the dozens — and even in Allegheny it’s only a little more than 1,000. Republicans have gained a little ground in those counties, but it’s nothing like the gains Democrats have seen in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles counties. Democrats have extended our advantage by over 200,000 new registrants.

    So, yeah, the Democratic primary turnout wasn’t good this year — and that doesn’t speak well for the kind of participation we want to see, especially in off-year elections like 2018. But, it was just a primary, and comparing it to 2008 is a lousy comparison. If we have good exciting candidates for Senate and Governor, and in the 6th CD in 2018, Democrats should do just fine in Maryland.


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