Democrats Hold Overall Turnout Edge in Competitive House Races

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats turned out more voters overall than Republicans in 14 of the most competitive congressional districts that have had primaries so far, signaling the eagerness of the party’s base to confront Donald Trump in the first midterm election of his presidency.

While the turnout numbers are positive for the party, they don’t indicate a decisive edge in the November congressional elections that will determine whether Democrats gain a majority in the House.

The advantage also isn’t spread evenly. Democrats tallied more total votes than Republicans in just half of the 14 the districts, and they’ll need to win in many of those places to gain at least 23 U.S. House seats to take control of the chamber.

Expectations have been high for Democrats as the intensity of dissatisfaction with the president among the party’s core voters has boosted candidate recruitment and fundraising. Added to that are historical trends that point to losses for the party in power in between presidential election years.

Unofficial vote totals from the still-unfinished primary season show Democrats received about 806,000 votes in the 14 districts, while Republicans won about 727,000, according to a Bloomberg News tally. That’s roughly 52.6 percent for Democrats and 47.4 percent for GOP candidates.

Tossup Races

The districts reviewed are among 24 ranked by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report as tossups in November’s election and where primaries had been held through June 26. Two in New York and one in Virginia weren’t included because vote totals for uncontested candidates weren’t reported, making the statistical comparison impossible.

While primary contests aren’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen in a general election, they can reveal pockets of strengths for candidates and voter motivation.

Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist based in California, said party turnout advantage for House primaries has been a “mixed bag” so far nationally, even as he acknowledged Democrats seem more excited about the election.

“I think Democrats have an enthusiasm edge for sure,” he said.

Democratic Energy

John Lapp, a strategist who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when his party picked up 31 House seats and won control of the U.S. House in 2006, said he sees a "surge in turnout" in the primaries and thinks Democrats are positioned more favorably now than then.

“You have seen a sustained, consistent energy in Democratic turnout and resistance to Trump,” Lapp said.

Polls back up Lapp’s argument. When voters were asked about their level of motivation as compared to past U.S. House elections, 58 percent of Democrats said they were more motivated, while 41 percent of Republicans answered that way, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released July 2.

Both parties are also closely watching polls that ask which party’s candidate voters would pick in their House district, without names being mentioned. In the Quinnipiac survey, Democrats led Republicans 50 percent to 41 percent.

Comparing primary election turnout is challenging because balloting varies widely from state to state. Some states generate more activity because of statewide races for governor or U.S. Senate that tend to draw more voters.

California Districts

In four California districts rated as tossups in November, Republicans received more than 292,000 total votes, while Democrats got almost 259,000. Republicans scored their largest advantages in and around the longtime GOP stronghold of Orange County.

Republican voting in the state was almost certainly boosted by the party’s efforts to try to make sure that a GOP candidate for governor survived California’s unusual primary system that advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party.

GOP leaders had feared that if Republican businessman John Cox hadn’t moved on to the general election -- as he did with a second-place finish to Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom in the June 5 primary -- it could have hurt GOP turnout statewide in November.

Trump’s Endorsement

Trump’s endorsement of Cox shortly before the primary helped boost overall GOP turnout in the state, said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange, California.

In November, Republicans also hope a measure to repeal a 12-cent gasoline tax passed by California lawmakers last year will boost GOP turnout.

Democrats, meanwhile, recorded significantly larger gains, on a percentage basis, in all four California districts when compared to the most recent midterm primary in 2014. In the 39th district, where seven Republicans and six Democrats crowded the ballot in the race to succeed retiring Republican Representative Ed Royce, Democrats more than tripled their turnout from 2014 as Republican turnout grew by 54 percent.

The comparison to 2014 isn’t perfect because Royce was then running as a longtime incumbent and national Democrats didn’t give the district, which includes parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, much attention. In the 2016 presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump there, 51 percent to 43 percent.

Turnout in districts rated as tossups

District Democratic turnout  Republican turnout  
TX-07 33,275  38,169  
TX-32 40,332  41,528  
IL-06 67,013  56,544  
IL-12 50,081  37,916  
OH-12 44,940  68,802  
PA-17 52,590  38,513  
KY-06 100,419  48,372  
CA-10 58,315  63,442  
CA-25 57,034  61,411  
CA-39 63,548  75,439  
CA-48 80,061  92,309  
IA-01 44,529  14,904  
NJ-07 38,743  33,040  
CO-06 75,492  56,650  

Source: state election officials (by primary date)

In the two Texas districts rated as tossups, Republicans narrowly had the turnout advantage in one and more easily in the other. Still, in a state that traditionally leans Republican, Democrats statewide more than doubled their 2014 primary turnout.

More Democratic primary ballots were cast in both districts rated as tossups in Illinois, where the party’s totals benefited from a competitive race for a gubernatorial nomination. In neighboring Iowa, there were similar governor’s race circumstances and Democrats recorded almost three times as many votes in the 1st district, where Republican Representative Rod Blum faces a strong challenge from Democrat Abby Finkenauer.

In New Jersey’s 7th district, Democratic turnout more than quadrupled when compared to 2014, as voters chose former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Tom Malinowski to challenge Republican Representative Leonard Lance. GOP primary turnout was up 13 percent.

Kentucky Race

Kentucky’s 6th district generated one of the more lopsided turnout differences. Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, won a Democratic primary that included five other candidates and generated more than 100,000 total votes. In November, she’ll face Republican Representative Andy Barr, who easily won his two-candidate primary.

In Ohio’s 12th district, the 10 Republican candidates on the May 8 primary ballot easily outdrew seven Democrats. Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor advanced to an Aug. 7 special election to fill a seat vacated by Patrick J. Tiberi, but the victor will then have to run again in November against the same opponent.

Total ballots cast for Democrats in the 14 districts were likely boosted by more multi-candidate contests than on the Republican side, a reflection of the party’s robust candidate recruitment. A total of 70 Democrats competed, compared to 41 Republicans.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.