Thursday, May 06, 2010

Primarily a Bad Sign

We can start with yesterday's AP piece trying to divine broader meaning from voter participation in Tuesday's primary. Here's the nub:

    Final, unofficial totals show more votes were cast for Republicans in every statewide race except U.S. Senate, the Democrats' most high-profile primary.

    Experts say the participation rates show Republicans are energized — perhaps to beat Democrats, but perhaps to either support or defy the nascent tea party movement. Lessons for fall are still being determined.
I'll mostly go along with that, especially since the participation rate parallels the polling data showing that Dems are demoralized and Repubs are energized. But it's worth noting a few factors that may exaggerate Tuesday's numbers:
  • The Roll-off Difference. Studies show that Democratic voters are more likely to roll-off, that is vote only the top of the ticket as opposed to filling out the entire ballot. This is, for example, why Republicans continued to win judicial races even in the big Dem cycles. Setting aside arguments about what this says about the respective parties, its certainly possible that Dems are less likely than Republicans to vote in all the uncontested races.
  • New Ballots. The new optical scan ballots make it more of a pain in the butt to vote. Filling in an oval is that much more tedious and annoying than punching a button or tapping a screen. Not that anyone would not vote in a real race, but when there is a real (if minimal) cost to doing something that matters not at all, fewer people will do it. This may have heightened the roll-off effect.
  • The Tea Party. While the Senate campaign was big for the true political junkies on the left, the Republicans had a near civil war over the Auditor's race in which the Tea Partiers had there guy against the establishment Party pick. This arguably injected an energy into turnout on the Republican side of the ballot.
  • Things Change. This an events-driven election cycle. The prime mover in this election is not big ideas about the role and size of government, it's that people want something/anything to happen so they start hurting. It's unlikely the economy -- and in particular the employment numbers -- will pick up appreciably, but if they do, the picture changes.
Make no mistake, things are not good for Democrats this cycle. But it is still good to see the entire picture.

UPDATE: Apparently the GOP's "voter enthusiasm" advantage is dampening. h/t Progress Ohio's Twitter feed.