On Tuesday night, Ayanna Pressley, a Boston City Council member, upset a 10-term Member of Congress in the Massachusetts’ Democratic primary. A poll in August had Pressley trailing by 13 points. She won by 18. The week before, Andrew Gillum won the Florida Democratic primary for governor despite trailing badly in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election.
Clearly, something is happening that polls aren’t picking up in primaries. Both Gillum and Pressley are African-American. Black voters who don’t have much history of voting came out to support their candidacies, but I think younger white voters came out to support them, too. Maybe they aren’t showing up in polls because the pollsters aren’t talking to them.
We saw a similar dynamic in the presidential election in 2016. White Republicans with little history of voting came out to support Donald Trump and the pollsters missed them. In North Carolina, for instance, 75% of all Republicans voted. That’s 3% more than had voted in any recent presidential election. The question is whether those voters come out this year or not.
Pressley is in a safe Democratic district so she’s going to Congress and Gillum faces a tough general election in Florida. We won’t know how those victories translate in other areas until after November. However, changes are afoot here in North Carolina, too. Linda Coleman has a poll showing her up by a point over George Holding in NC-02. That mirrors news Holding released a couple of weeks ago saying he’s down by three points. Both polls are within the margin of error making the race a dead heat.
I suspect Coleman is winning in two places. First, she’s benefiting from an uptick in African-American voters in the counties surrounding Wake. Second, she’s making inroads with educated white voters in suburban Raleigh who have little love for Donald Trump or a Republican Party unwilling to hold him accountable.
The math is working for Coleman. If Democrats vote at the same level as Republicans and unaffiliated voters break for Democrats, then Coleman wins. This week’s Washington Post/ABC poll shows Democrats are significantly more motivated to vote than Republicans and non-white voters are more enthusiastic than white voters. Last month, a Civitas Poll of unaffiliated voters showed them breaking for Democrats by almost 14 points in the Raleigh media market.
We have an unpredictable electorate right now. We may see an increase in people who don’t usually vote in midterm elections and some voters may be changing their behavior. Both Pressley and Gillum won races that focused more on grassroots than television. That might hold true in November, too. With so few swing voters in the mix, Democrats should take advantage of the enthusiasm gap to increase their share of the electorate and bring new voters into the fold.