Yesterday, I spent a good portion of the day reviewing turnout in elections over the past decade. The numbers give a lot of insight into what happened as Democrats collapsed. They also give a roadmap for Democrats to recover.
The simple answer to Democratic problems is turnout. When Democrats vote, they win. They haven’t turned out in significant numbers in North Carolina since 2008. Democrats certainly need to have a message and communications program, but emphasizing field to take advantage of their enthusiasm this year should be the priority.
Democracy North Carolina has done a great job of documenting what happened in recent elections from a turnout standpoint. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats and Republicans voted in equal measures. Thirty-nine percent of both parties voted in 2006 and 72% of both parties voted in 2008. Those years were Democratic wave elections, so unaffiliated voters broke for Democrats. Still, even if unaffiliated voters had broken evenly, Democrats would have had decent election years.
In 2010, though, the bottom fell out for Democrats while motivated Republicans dramatically increased their numbers. Only 45% of Democrats voted while 51% of Republicans did. Only 33% of unaffiliated voters showed up but they broke for the GOP. That turnout gave Republicans the power to redraw district lines following the census and locked in their power in Raleigh.
In 2014, the last midterm, we saw a repeat of 2010 in terms of turnout. Democrats increased turnout by 1% to 46% but again, Republicans voted at 51% and 35% unaffiliated voters showed up. If Democrats had voted at 51%, they would have garnered another 113,000 votes, enough to have re-elected Kay Hagan.
This years, Democrats are far more motivated to vote than Republicans. With a Blue Moon election, turnout will almost certainly fall, but if Republicans hold steady and vote at the same 51% they’ve voted in the last two midterms, they’ll get about 1,065,800 GOP votes. If Democrats match that 51%, they’ll see 1,358,003 voters, giving them an almost 300,000 vote advantage. In addition, Civitas indicates that unaffiliated voters are breaking for Democrats by a six point margin. If that holds until November and unaffiliated voters show up at 35% like they did in 2014, Democrats get another 50,000 vote advantage.
If the scenario above played out, turnout for 2018 would be 46%. Democrats would win the overall vote by a margin of 55% to 45%. While the vote wouldn’t be spread equally across districts, it would certainly eliminate the veto proof majorities and put control of the state House of Representatives, and maybe even the state Senate, in play. It would also give Democrats another Supreme Court seat.
Democrats will go into the post-Labor Day political season with a big advantage in enthusiasm. They should harness that enthusiasm with strong field operations. This year, the sign on campaign walls should read, “It’s the turnout, stupid.”
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >