Two years ago, I revealed that the 2018 “Blue wave” was real but it wasn’t what everyone thought. It was fun to let people in on Arizona’s little secret. While our voter registration remains fairly even, Republicans tended to over-participate in elections while Democrats stayed fairly even and independent and unaffiliated underperformed.
Ultimately, as I said in that piece, “We know who shows up. The question is who might show up around them.” This notion has been the standard for many years and it has been the key to understanding how most elections in Arizona would play out. It was like knowing the other team’s play before they left the huddle (I’m really missing college football right about now).
And then something happened. The mid-term election in 2018 ended up exceeding expectations and had the second highest mid-term turnout in Arizona history – nearly eclipsing the record set in 1982. Republicans still held the participation advantage, but the 12 to 14+ point advantage they usually enjoyed fell to seven. Four statewide offices went to Democrats and about 195,000 voters cast a vote for Sinema for Senate and Ducey for Governor. Soon after, 2019 came along and had record turnout in several off-cycle elections. Bear in mind, these special elections did not suddenly hit General Election numbers, but it was still much higher than usual participation.
The table was set for the 2020 Primary Election. Turnout this August reached 36.46% – exceeding the record turnout in 2018. In all, more overall voters have participated in 2020 than any previous primary election. The Primary Election cycle had been stable in recent years, garnering around 29 to 30% turnout. The last two cycles show a significant upward trend in participation.
Again, the standard for primaries in Arizona had been primarily a Republican affair. They were the ones with the competitive races and usually about 60% of all ballots cast in a primary were GOP Ballots. This has been especially true since 2010 (post Obama’s first election and the explosion of the tea party), where GOP primary participation shot up 66.5% from 360k in 2008 to nearly 601k in 2010.
This week, the Secretary of State published the official canvass and it reveals a pretty significant shift in the electorate. For the first time in recent history, Republicans and Democrats were much closer in the number of ballots cast in the Primary Election. As recently as four years ago during the last Presidential Cycle, there were nearly 230,000 more ballots cast in Republican primaries than Democrat primaries. That number has fallen to 57,000. Even more – Democrat participation surged nearly 40% from the 2016 to 2018 primary and topped it again with another spike of 32% in 2020.
There are a couple of places to look for the source of this surge. First, we are still waiting for the final files to be loaded but some preliminary data in Maricopa County showed that Independent and unaffiliated voters were leaning Democratic with 51% requesting a Democratic ballot compared to 39% requesting Republicans and 10% requesting municipal or non-partisan. That accounts for some of the increase, but it only tells part of the story.
Overall, participation is up across the board. Bob Robb has always been leery about the way we talk about turnout because we usually relate it as it compares to the overall electorate. So, in this case, we started to dive into turnout just relative to the party itself.
We don’t have complete numbers loaded yet, but even GOP participation is up. Through Election Day, they had already outstripped their turnout in the 2018 Primary. The challenge is that the Democrats and Independents had significant upticks to “catch up.” Through Election Day, Democratic turnout had surged from 29.4% of all registered Democrats to more than 38.4% – an uptick of more than 30 percent. Independent and unaffiliated voters were approximately 9.7% up from 7.9% in 2018. While it’s true that they are a small portion of the primary audience (a discussion for another time), they also rose by nearly 23 percent.
Henry Ford once said, “Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Enthusiasm is the sparkle in your eyes, the swing in your gait. The grip of your hand, the irresistible surge of will and energy to execute your ideas.”
The “Blue wave” is so 2018. The “irresistible surge of will” is real and it has arrived. It still seems unlikely that 2020 will be the year that Democrat participation exceeds Republican participation, but if the Primary Election is any indication, they may get close.
Here at HighGround, we’re still working on and debating what, exactly, this will mean for our turnout model for November and what it will mean for the election. We had previously dropped the traditional Republican advantage from plus 7 to plus 4 for all of our modeling late last year and earlier this year. We are discussing if we want to adjust further. However, in the meantime, with each passing day, it certainly seems safe to say that Arizona will likely exceed 3 million votes this fall.
With so many voters showing up to vote and the Presidential and U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket, it will be incumbent upon all of the down ballot races and ballot issues to make sure they make their case to those who may not be paying as close attention. Think of it as the political version of “surge” pricing.