Voters Aren’t Excited, Even With Senate Control at Stake

Turnout in the most competitive races is down, and analysts suggest the drop isn’t a coincidence.

Joni Ernst was struggling to get traction in the Iowa Senate primary.  Then she ran an ad about hog castration.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Add to Briefcase
Alex Roarty
June 10, 2014, 2:53 p.m.

Voters are hav­ing a hard time get­ting ex­cited about this year’s primar­ies, even with con­trol of Con­gress on the line.

In the mar­quee con­tests so far, voter turnout is down dra­mat­ic­ally from com­par­able races in pre­vi­ous years, an ana­lys­is of res­ults shows. The trend ex­tends to each party, in both Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al races, and it has some politicos spec­u­lat­ing that voters don’t care as much about these primary elec­tions as they used to.

The drop-off is sur­pris­ing some cam­paign in­siders, giv­en the bevy of im­port­ant races that have at­trac­ted a di­verse, com­pet­it­ive col­lec­tion of can­did­ates and could de­term­ine wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans can take over the Sen­ate.

“I was very shocked at the turnout,” said Craig Robin­son, a vet­er­an GOP op­er­at­ive in Iowa, a state whose Re­pub­lic­an primary for Sen­ate failed to gen­er­ate much in­terest. “I was really sur­prised that this Sen­ate race didn’t gen­er­ate more buzz statewide.”

He had ori­gin­ally pro­jec­ted turnout to look match pre­vi­ous com­pet­it­ive primar­ies in the state. “It wasn’t un­til late when you star­ted watch­ing the cam­paigns, star­ted watch­ing the turnout of events, I thought, ‘Wow, we’re not go­ing to come out any­where near that.’”

In Iowa, for ex­ample, a mul­tic­an­did­ate field vy­ing for the state’s first open Sen­ate seat in dec­ades failed to stir in­terest among GOP voters. About 160,000 Re­pub­lic­ans turned up to vote, giv­ing the nom­in­a­tion to state Sen. Joni Ernst. That’s down 30 per­cent (70,000 people) from the state’s 2010 gubernat­ori­al primary that pit Gov. Terry Bran­stad against so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive Bob Vander Plaats.

Turnout com­pared even more poorly against oth­er pre­vi­ous races. The Des Moines Re­gister re­por­ted that the last com­pet­it­ive Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primary, in 1980, fea­tured more than 259,000 voters. (Iowa’s pop­u­la­tion has grown by more than 130,000 since 1980, to boot.)

In Geor­gia, an­oth­er crowded GOP primary for the Sen­ate couldn’t gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm among voters, either. Roughly 600,000 people voted in the Re­pub­lic­an race (which led to a run­off between busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive Dav­id Per­due and Rep. Jack King­ston). That’s far few­er than the 680,000 who showed up in the state’s 2010 GOP primary, a dif­fer­ence of 13 per­cent.

Throughout Geor­gia, voter turnout clocked in be­low 20 per­cent, des­pite a pleth­ora of com­pet­it­ive House primar­ies on the Re­pub­lic­an side, ac­cord­ing to The At­lanta Journ­al-Con­sti­tu­tion. Still, a great­er share of people voted in Geor­gia’s primary than in Cali­for­nia’s, where an abysmal 18.3 per­cent of all eli­gible voters showed up.

Low turnout isn’t just plaguing Sen­ate races.

In Pennsylvania, for ex­ample, the Demo­crat­ic Party’s gubernat­ori­al primary fea­tured a long­time House mem­ber with the back­ing of na­tion­al lib­er­al groups such as EMILY’s List (Allyson Schwartz), a rising-star state treas­urer (Rob Mc­Cord), and a busi­ness­man from the state’s famed con­ser­vat­ive “T” with close ties to former Gov. Ed Rendell’s ad­min­is­tra­tion (Tom Wolf).

Giv­en Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Tom Corbett’s poor poll num­bers, Demo­crats had ex­tra reas­on to be ex­cited that their nom­in­ee would be­come the state’s next gov­ernor. But when the May 20 primary ar­rived, many voters didn’t seem to no­tice. Roughly 840,000 Pennsylvania Demo­crats voted, down 18 per­cent (190,000 people) from the 1 mil­lion who cast their bal­lots in the party’s 2010 gubernat­ori­al primary.

The drop was even steep­er com­pared with the 2002 primary for gov­ernor, when 1.24 mil­lion re­gistered Demo­crats chose their can­did­ate — a total nearly 50 per­cent great­er than this year’s turnout.

All of these primar­ies, in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Geor­gia, fea­tured com­pet­it­ive, mul­tic­an­did­ate con­tests with a lot on the line for the fall. Iowa and Geor­gia hos­ted com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races that could very well de­term­ine which party con­trols the U.S. Sen­ate. Corbett, the GOP gov­ernor in Pennsylvania, is usu­ally re­garded as the most vul­ner­able gubernat­ori­al in­cum­bent in the coun­try. And al­though Wolf and Ernst won their races with lar­ger-than-ex­pec­ted mar­gins, most ana­lysts con­sidered these con­tests highly com­pet­it­ive not long ago.

In oth­er words, each had all the in­gredi­ents of an in­ter­est­ing race.

So why the drop-off? Voters’ deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Wash­ing­ton and polit­ics in gen­er­al might be keep­ing them away from the pro­cess al­to­geth­er, con­vinced that their vote won’t change a broken sys­tem. Or it might be that the gradu­al ideo­lo­gic­al ho­mo­gen­iz­a­tion of each party has left voters with few­er real dif­fer­ences among the can­did­ates — and con­sequently, less in­terest in who­ever emerges as the nom­in­ee. In 2002 in Pennsylvania, for in­stance, Ca­sey was os­tens­ibly an an­ti­abor­tion can­did­ate, while Rendell un­equi­voc­ally backed abor­tion rights. By 2014, there were no such dif­fer­ences with­in the field.

“Voters aren’t see­ing much of a choice there, and most Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crats prob­ably feel like, ‘I know I want my party to win, and I’m just go­ing to wait un­til the gen­er­al elec­tion to vote,” said Alan Ab­ramow­itz, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence at Emory Uni­versity.

Cer­tainly, turnout isn’t plum­met­ing every­where. But at best, it’s flat­lining.

In Ken­tucky, for ex­ample, the primary between GOP Sen­ate Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and busi­ness­man Matt Bev­in drew about 20,000 more GOP votes than the 2010 con­test between now-Sen. Rand Paul and Sec­ret­ary of State Trey Gar­ris­on. (Mc­Con­nell and Paul both won eas­ily, so neither might qual­i­fy as a com­pet­it­ive race.)

The Sen­ate primary in Neb­raska re­ceived a sim­il­ar small bump, when 220,000 Re­pub­lic­ans turned out this year, as op­posed to the 195,000 who voted in the state’s sim­il­arly com­pet­it­ive 2012 in­tra-party con­test.

The most not­able ex­cep­tion to this year’s low turnout trend came in Mis­sis­sippi. In that con­test between six-term Sen. Thad Co­chran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, turnout was pro­jec­ted to fall to between 200,000 and 250,000. In­stead it ex­ceeded 300,000. It’s likely no co­in­cid­ence that the primary — the fiercest tea party-versus-GOP es­tab­lish­ment battle of the cycle — also happened to draw the most in­terest from the elect­or­ate.

What We're Following See More »
$618 BILLION IN FUNDING
By a Big Margin, House Passes Defense Bill
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."

Source:
SUCCEEDS UPTON
Walden to Chair Energy and Commerce Committee
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Senators Looking to Limit Deportations Under Trump
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.

Source:
REQUIRES CHANGE IN LAW
Trump Taps Mattis for Defense Secretary
2 days ago
BREAKING

Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.

Source:
MEASURE HEADED TO OBAMA
Senate OKs 10-Year Extension of Iran Sanctions
2 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login