By: Paul Bentz
As voting started on November 3, 2020, more than 2.6 million voters in the State of Arizona had already cast their ballot – meaning the state had already exceeded 2018 turnout and nearly matched 2016 Presidential turnout before a single ballot was cast on Election Day. Ultimately, the state ended up blowing past 3 million total votes for the first time in state history and racked up 1 million more voters than 2018 and more than 750,000 voters than 2016.
In the end, turnout peaked at 79.9% – the highest in more than 20 years and just short of the record of 80.1% set in 1980. Democrat enthusiasm was at a fever pitch the first two weeks of returns jumping out to a significant lead and outperforming Republicans in early voting for the first time in history. From mid-October on, Republicans narrowed the gap and finally caught up in the week leading up to Election Day – gaining a significant advantage in Election Day ballots cast.
In 2016, when Trump prevailed, Republicans held a 6.7-point advantage of all ballots cast, which was slightly below the Presidential average. In 2018, the GOP advantage was 7 points which was down from the traditional double-digit advantage in mid-term elections. Seeing that, HighGround amended our turnout model to a GOP advantage from 6 down to 4 points in our early polling. After the surge in Democratic primary turnout we dropped the GOP turnout advantage to 3 points.
Our pre-early voting survey quotas were set at 37% GOP, 34% Dem, and 29% Independent & Other. At the end of the day, we hit the Democrat enthusiasm, but slightly overestimated the ability of independents and unaffiliated voters to keep pace with their partisan counterparts. Our pre-early voting polling showed Biden with a one-point lead and Kelly up by 6 – much closer than the national polls at the time, and the first to reflect the much closer nature of both elections.
We have talked until we are blue (or purple or fuchsia) in the face about what this means about the nature of the Arizona electorate and the future of Maricopa County. However, thinking more immediately, what does it mean for 2022?
In the 657 days from the inauguration to the midterms on November 8, 2022, here are the four big questions that will need to be answered:
1.Can Democrats maintain their enthusiasm?
For the second cycle in a row, Democrats sustained massive enthusiasm – upping their turnout and activating their supporters. They converted thousands of their supporters to “first week” and “second week” voters despite being hampered by a pandemic that negatively impacted some of their most effective direct voter contact strategies. In Arizona, they won both the Presidency and the United States Senate – both massive accomplishments.
At the same time, they did not take control of the Arizona Corporation Commission or either chamber of the State Legislature. Several races that many people thought would be competitive were not. It was believed that with so many voters converted to early voters, Democrats would be able to focus on other individuals and sustain their turnout and maintain their lead. In the end, the GOP caught up. While they had a respectable showing, Democrats still trailed Republicans in turnout compared to registration 84% to 87%. There is still room for improvement.
It has long been true that Trump is the biggest turnout mechanism for both parties. Now that Trump is no longer President, both parties will have to determine how and if they can sustain this momentum without a “bad guy” to rally against or a “chosen one” to rally for.
In 2010, despite significantly improving the usage and deployment of voter data, Democrats saw thousands of Obama voters fail to show up two years later. Can Democrats change that trend and maintain the momentum with those lower efficacy voters?
2. What becomes of the Republican Party?
For Republicans, 2020 showed that rhetoric and conspiracies have consequences. In Arizona, Trump single-handedly reversed nearly two decades of GOP voting behavior. By casting doubt and illegitimacy concerns on early voting, he hamstrung a historic Republican advantage and may have suppressed his own support in the Grand Canyon State. He unquestionably shattered the early lead that Republicans usually enjoy.
It should be noted that the Victory ground team did a phenomenal job closing the registration gap and turning out their rural voters which kept the race as close as it was. Their work likely saved the GOP advantage in both legislative bodies, while Trump remained his own worst enemy. Further evidence of this destructive behavior was clearly shown in the Georgia special election, where the President suppressed his own voter turnout by delegitimizing the very elections Republicans needed to win in order to maintain a majority in the United States Senate.
Looking ahead, midterm elections in Arizona have traditionally been a Republican affair with participation advantages that often rise to the double-digit range. Post-Obama’s first election, GOP primary participation surged by 66% in 2010. The GOP went on to dominate the General Election by 12 points and swept every statewide office and two-thirds majorities in both Legislative bodies. More than ten years later, there appear to be several things standing in the way of replicating that previous midterm success.
Over 3,000 Republicans have already left the party in the wake of the violence on January 6th. Coupled with Trump considering building his own his own “Patriot Party,” Republicans are facing a reckoning. Certainly, the corporate questions about the party’s future will seriously handicap fundraising if Trump remains in charge. Republicans may be facing a two-sided insurrection. Can they recover or do they disintegrate?
3. How will Independents react?
Independent and unaffiliated voters make up nearly a third of the electorate. Yet, they are treated differently in the electoral process and independent candidates face massive barriers to participating in our elections. As our polling showed prior to the General Election, they leaned towards Biden and Kelly for President and Senate. Yet, Republicans held on to majorities in both chambers and all incumbent Maricopa County Supervisors retained their seats and defeated the Democrat County Recorder. These folks are not afraid to pick and choose.
Typically, Independent and unaffiliate voter participation falls to 25% of the electorate in midterm years. However, two years ago, they were at 27%. Is that a lingering Trump effect or are they starting to participate more regularly in our elections? How will they react to a Biden Presidency and Sinema and Kelly being in the majority? How will they react to how the next two legislative sessions unfold? Will there be a time warping crisis like a pandemic to alter the narrative trajectory?
4. What surprises lie ahead?
A lot of things will change over the next 93 weeks. The handling of the pandemic, the state of the economy, the behavior of the Democratic majority, immigration reform, and ongoing GOP election “reforms,” will all likely impact the 2022 election in countless, unseen ways. Not to mention the impact of the Independent Redistricting Process and the likely addition of a 10th Congressional Seat creating a cascading set of musical chairs.
We cannot predict the future, but we can help you plan for it. If you want reliable data and smart folks to help you understand how to navigate the uncertain waters ahead, we are here to talk, analyze, strategize and execute.