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
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.

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