Democrats greatest fear this election cycle has long been their base staying home this midterm. Disappointment with the President, record low approvals of Congress and a dysfunctional political system have fed into the perception that Democratic turnout will be much smaller than 2012. Gallup recently published a survey finding only 42% of Americans identified as Democrats or Democratic leaning Independents compared to 40% who identified as Republican or Republican leaning Independents. The number mirrors self-identification numbers in the GOP dominated years of 1994 and 2010.
But the Gallup survey was taken August 1st. Now new evidence, less than four weeks before election day, suggests the problem has not gone away. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg survey finds Democratic supporters are less interested in the election than are Republican voters, Democrats can take comfort in the fact among registered voters 48% prefer they control Congress compared to only 43% preferring GOP control. But among the most interested voters (Likely voters) the GOP leads 51%-44% while Democrats lead among less interested voters 52%-37%. Republican supporting voters were most interested in national security and foreign policy while a majority of registered voters ranked the economy and jobs as most important.
Democratic turnout has already handed Republicans several victories in local and federal special elections. In November 2013 in a swing state senate district in Washington, Republican Jan Angel defeated Democrat Nathan Schlicher, largely due to decreased Democratic turnout in a district Obama easily carried a year earlier. In early 2014 a Northern Virginia legislative district was decided by less than 100 votes, again due to decreased turnout. But perhaps the most worrying sign for Democrats came when Congressman Bill Young died in 2013, opening up a competitive Congressional district.
The district, nestled in populous Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in Florida was carried by Obama in both 2008 and 2012 (even after redistricting). But Young, who had represented the district since the 70’s had kept it in the GOP column. When Young passed away, Democrats jumped at the chance to take the district. Democrats nominated 2010 gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink to run while Republicans battled out their nomination in a spirited three-way primary. The eventual winner was former Young aide and lobbyist David Jolly. Democrats boasted their turnout machine would dominate while Republicans tried out an untested voter database. Polls showed Sink ahead throughout the race but on election night Jolly won with just over 48% of the vote. His victory was largely attributed to Democratic voters failing to turn out for the special.
The same thing could hit Democrats next month. That is why Democrats have invested over $60 million in voter registration and turnout operations. The evidence on its success is mixed. In Iowa, a new Des Moines Register poll shows the effort succeeding in getting Democratic voters to turn in early ballots. Among those in the survey who said they had already voted (15%), Democrats led 56%-35% (though not all early voters volunteered who they supported). Still, Republicans have made strides in this effort as well. Despite the disparity in reported early voting preferences the GOP is in a far better position among early voters than in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans are also strongly touting their efforts in Colorado. Due to the state’s all mail voting system the party has been aided by a system designed to make it easier to vote (if not allow voter fraud). But Udall’s unending emphasis on social issues and a Proposition to have teacher salary negotiations be open to the public has interested Republican voters. Still, numbers on the Colorado race have yet to be released since ballots have just begun to be mailed out.
Further worrying Democrats a Columbus Dispatch analysis of early voting in Franklin County finds voters trending more Republican in the Democratic county than in 2010. That year, John Kasich won 44% of the county’s vote. Republicans have actually succeeded in mailing out more absentee ballots to their partisans than Democrats. In 2010, Democrats were 12,000 ballots ahead. Admittedly, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the state, Ed Fitzgerald, has imploded. But it is a sign that with Democratic efforts largely focused on the Senate and gubernatorial contests in Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, they could suffer electoral disaster in down ballot races nationwide.
Democrats have reason to worry about turnout next month. They have tried to get their supporters to vote. But in the end, they may have to accept their voters may not be that in to them.