Democrats See Some Good Signs In Booming Early Vote Numbers

WACO, TEXAS - OCTOBER 31: U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) (C) squeezes his way out of a crowded hall during a campaign stop at the John Knox Memorial Center at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame October 31, 2018 in Waco, Texas. With less than a week before Election Day, O'Rourke is driving across the state in his race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WACO, TEXAS - OCTOBER 31: U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) (C) squeezes his way out of a crowded hall during a campaign stop at the John Knox Memorial Center at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame October 31... WACO, TEXAS - OCTOBER 31: U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) (C) squeezes his way out of a crowded hall during a campaign stop at the John Knox Memorial Center at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame October 31, 2018 in Waco, Texas. With less than a week before Election Day, O'Rourke is driving across the state in his race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
November 1, 2018 9:52 a.m.

Voters are turning out in record numbers in states with early vote options across the nation — and Democrats are excited about a lot of what they’re seeing.

Turnout is way up across the map, with both Democrats and Republicans far exceeding their early vote numbers in nearly every state with a competitive statewide race on the ballot this year. Eighteen states and counting have already surpassed their total early vote counts from four years ago.

We’re seeing high levels of Democratic engagement. And if you add that with Republicans continuing at their 2014 levels that gets you a very high turnout rate,” said University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, an early vote expert. “What we’re seeing so far with the early vote is a hybrid midterm-presidential election [model]. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

McDonald said that just four years after one of the lowest-turnout midterm elections in U.S. history, there’s a real chance that this turns into the highest-turnout midterm since 1966 if current trends hold. If turnout breaks a bit above 50 percent, it would be the highest since 1914.

And while analysts of all stripes are cautious about overstating what these numbers mean after many predicted big things for Hillary Clinton based on the early vote two years ago and the news isn’t uniformly good for either side, most see some promising signs for Democrats in some key races.

Some of the best numbers Democrats are seeing come in some of the traditionally Republican-leaning Sun Belt states that have suddenly become competitive this year. Democrats are banking on huge surges in young and minority voters in those places — and there is data suggesting that this may be coming to fruition in some spots.

Texas-Sized Turnout

“We are seeing pretty massive surges in these lower-propensity voters, especially younger voters, nonwhite voters, Latino and African American voters” in a number of states, said Tom Bonier, a Democratic modeling expert who is doing some work for the Texas Democratic Party as well as a number of other campaigns. “The most impressive is Texas.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is counting on fundamentally changing the electorate in order to overcome his disadvantage in the polls and topple Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). According to Bonier’s analysis of the early vote, that may be occurring.

More than 200,000 first-time voters have already cast their ballots in Texas, nearly three times the raw number of new voters in the next-closest state, California, according to Bonier’s model.

At this point in 2014, voters under age 40, who lean Democratic, made up just 11 percent of the Texas early vote, while those over age 65 made up fully 47 percent of the electorate. That’s shifted dramatically: Voters under 40 are currently accounting for 21 percent of the electorate, and voters over 65 are down to 34 percent of the electorate.

Hispanic and African American turnouts in Texas are well ahead of where they were in past midterm elections, when Democrats failed to energize those key voting blocs and got crushed in statewide races, and have risen at sharper rates than white turnout.

In Texas, Democrats are voting at roughly 200 percent the rate they did four years ago, while Republican turnout is up by about 150 percent. Overall turnout is nearly at presidential levels, and turnout in the Democratic bastions of Houston and O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso have been especially strong relative to previous midterms.

“The early vote does give you reason for optimism in terms of the electorate looking pretty dramatically different in Texas,” Bonier said. “My instinct on that is the polls are overly conservative in terms of the composition of the electorate and you’re looking at a margin-of-error race.”

That’s all a prerequisite for O’Rourke to have a chance. He’s trailed in most recent polls, which forecast a better but not great turnout for Democrats, by outside the margin of error. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) carried the state by a 20-point margin in 2014 as Hispanic vote collapsed across the state from presidential levels, so comparing things to last midterm means comparing them to the nadir of Democratic performance in the state. But something big may just be happening, and these numbers are the most concrete sign all election that he could pull off a major upset.

Sunny Sun Belt Numbers For Democrats

Texas isn’t the only Sun Belt state where a candidate that’s deeply excited base voters is ginning up major early turnout.

Turnout is booming in Georgia as well — and African American voters have cast their votes at a slightly higher rate than white voters, currently representing roughly 31 percent of the early vote.

If that number holds, that’s a good sign for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in her nail-biter of a race against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R). Democratic and Republican strategists have told TPM for months that if African Americans make up at least 30 percent or more of the electorate Abrams has a real chance of avoiding a runoff and defeating Kemp on election day. Abrams has emphasized early voting more than Kemp, so it’s unclear if this is sustainable, but right now this is a good sign for her.

Some other Sun Belt states with key races have shown some promising numbers for Democrats as well.

One is Nevada, where Democrats hope to win the governorship, defeat Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) and hold two marginally competitive House seats. Democrats continue to build up their early vote firewall in crucial Clark County, home of Las Vegas, and currently have a 33,000-vote edge there heading into election day with a few days left in early voting — on pace to surpass the 35,000-vote edge they need to start feeling comfortable. Voters from both parties are turning out at record rates there, as in many other places. But it appears that Republicans are turning out more people who vote normally, while Democrats are turning out more low-propensity voters, a key difference.

“I’d rather be the Democrats simply because higher turnout generally is going to favor them, and the mix of the early voting electorate seems to favor them as well. Republicans have had many more reliable voters turn out than the Democrats already,” said Jon Ralston, the dean of the Nevada political reporters.

Arizona, which has a marquee Senate matchup between Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Martha McSally (R-AZ), is also looking better for Democrats as well after a few less-than-stellar days.

Republicans had been outvoting Democrats by 10-point margins for the first few days of early vote in the state. That’s often something that occurs in the early days of early voting in the state even in close statewide races, while Democrats often gradually cut into that margin in the latter half of early voting. It looks like that’s starting to happen: The GOP margin had shrunk to a six-point margin for the last few days, according to analysis from the Arizona secretary of state’s office. And on Tuesday, it dropped to just a two-point edge.

Democrats are going to have a very impressive showing on this next report. They’re closing very strong,” Garrett Archer, an analyst for Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (R), told TPM Wednesday afternoon.  “If you’re a Republican operative out here, you’ve got to be starting to get nervous.”

More than 10 percent of the state’s early votes have come from people who’ve never voted in a general election in Arizona before, and those voters skewed younger, with more than a quarter of them under the age of 30.

The state’s population has grown a lot, so there are no apples-to-apples comparisons from previous early vote numbers. But Archer said in the last four midterms, including in 2006 when Democrats had a good year in the state, Republicans have generally held about an 11-point lead in early vote registration margin. More than three quarters of voters are expected to vote early in the state, so that’s a big deal.

Tennessee has seen a huge spike in turnout and may actually have double the number of early voters from four years ago. But since there were few competitive races in the state during the last two midterms it’s hard to judge how much that could benefit former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) as he looks to upset Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

Mixed Bags

In Montana and Indiana most Democrats think the early vote is looking decent for them. Strategists disagreed about whether Indiana’s early vote was looking strong enough for Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) to feel good, however. In Montana, where much of the electorate has already voted, Democrats think Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) campaign is hitting but not exceeding the numbers he needs for a narrow win. Both key Senate races appear to be going down to the wire.

In Florida, home to hard-fought races for governor and Senate, the data paints a mixed picture as well. Early vote numbers much more closely match private polls from both sides that show close races than public polling that’s found Democrats with more comfortable leads.

The state has already beaten its early vote numbers from four years ago, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) ground out a two-point win, and the African American early vote has jumped at an even higher rate than the white vote. Democrats have also cut Republicans’ early-vote edge from 2014 roughly in half. But changes in state law have made it easier to vote, making it hard to compare the two electorates — and since overall early vote is off the charts for both parties, it’s hard to interpret what impact that might have.

In states where there are less competitive statewide contests, Democrats are seeing huge early vote turnout that mirrors what occurred in special elections, while Republicans’ turnout hasn’t been as strong.

North Carolina’s early vote is outpacing where it was four years ago, for instance, even though the biggest statewide race there this year is a Supreme Court race and four years ago the state had the most expensive Senate race in the country. And while it appears that there’s been a bit of a dip in the percentage of the electorate that’s African American, overall it looks more Democratic than in past years.

Two other states where Democrats look like they’ll pick up governorships and have competitive House races, Iowa and Illinois, have seen massive early vote turnout that appears to be benefitting Democrats.

“Where there aren’t high-profile races you’re seeing lots of Democrats showing up and Republicans aren’t showing up at the same rates,” said McDonald. “That could have some significance when you get down into the House.”

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