News: CJ Exclusives

Enthusiastic early voters offer few clues about midterm outcomes

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

More than 2 million voters cast one-stop early voting and absentee ballots during an 18-day period ending Saturday, astonishing political observers. They are watching whether that enthusiasm spills over to the traditional election day Tuesday, Nov. 6.

The high level of turnout may not reflect which party is likely to win. Even polling offers little clarity.

“This is the most uncertain election cycle I’ve experienced in awhile, particularly for a midterm election, just because there is so much enthusiasm on each side. Polls are all over the place,” said David McLennan, a Meredith College political science professor, and director of the Meredith Poll.

Conventional wisdom holds that early gaps in polls narrow as election day nears. Yet national polls released Monday showed Democrats leading on generic ballots anywhere from a decisive 13-point advantage to a 3-point edge that reflects the margin of error, McLennan said.

“As a pollster I’m going, ‘Man, that’s a lot of variability.’ That leads me to believe that we will all be waking up Wednesday morning somewhat surprised,” McLennan said.

Voting started at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, and polls close at 7:30 p.m.

Voters will elect candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives, and General Assembly, judges, and district attorneys. They will decide six constitutional amendments, a host of local referenda, and pick winners in school board, sheriff, soil and water conservation district, county commission, county clerk, and register of deeds races. For the first time North Carolina voters will have the option to cast ballots for Constitution Party and Green Party non-presidential candidates.

“I don’t see a tsunami in North Carolina, but I do see a normal midterm” in which the party that holds the White House loses seats, McLennan said. Democrats might pick up congressional seats nationally, and state legislative seats in North Carolina, but there could be some Republican victories in districts where Democrats appeared to be favored.

In isolation, Democratic strongholds in Wake and Mecklenburg counties might suggest a blue wave election, but that likely will be tempered by Republican wins in rural districts, he said.

McLennan does not expect final turnout will surpass past election records. “I think there’s some evidence that election day voting has already been cannibalized by the 2 million-plus early and absentee votes.”

Nearly 30 percent of the registered electorate already cast ballots, leading McLennan to project overall turnout will reach the mid- to high-40 percent range of registered voters, exceeding the average of midterm vote totals over the past 20 years. Perhaps 20 percent of registered voters could go to the polls Tuesday. But threats of bad weather could change that.

“If the weather is really bad, and we’re getting some thunderstorms, and perhaps tornado warnings, that may drop it pretty significantly to 15-16 percent” of voters braving the elements to vote Tuesday, McLennan said. Some voters in hurricane-ravaged parts of the state who otherwise would have voted might also stay home.

“We are in a weird place” this election, said Michael Bitzer, chairman of the Catawba College Department of Politics. Early voting turnout was 79 percent higher than the 2014 midterm election.

“We’re in a blue moon election with no major statewide U.S. Senate or governor’s race. Why are all those people showing up? What’s driving them? I don’t know,” Bitzer said.

He thinks final voter performance will fall between average midterm elections and presidential election years.

Bitzer’s 2018 early voting analysis showed registered Democrats achieved 67 percent of their 2016 presidential year early votes, and were 56 percent ahead of their 2014 numbers. Republicans netted 62 percent of their 2016 early vote totals, and exceeded their 2014 tally by 65 percent. Unaffiliated voters recorded 68 percent of their 2016 early vote numbers, and were 130 percent above 2014 figures.

“For all the talk of young voter engagement and mobilization, at least in early voting in this state, it hasn’t panned out,” Bitzer said.

Millennials (22-37 years of age) represent 27 percent of registered voters, but just 14 percent of early turnout. Generation X (38-53) represents 26 percent of registered voters but 23 percent of turnout. Baby Boomers (54-73) make up 31 percent of registered voters, but overperformed at 45 percent of early vote totals. And the Greatest Generation (74-plus) are 10 percent of registered voters, but cast 14 percent of early votes.

Both Bitzer and McLennan think trend lines show the convenience of early voting is de-emphasizing election day turnouts.

Critics of early voting say voters who don’t wait until election day lose the option to change their mind when last-minute surprises about a candidate erupt. Bitzer said early voters tend to be hard-core partisans, and they would still vote for their party’s candidates regardless if negative news broke late in the election cycle.

Although the political parties hailed having candidates in nearly every legislative race this year, “I haven’t seen any wild swings one way or the other” attributed to having fewer uncontested races on the ballot, Bitzer said.

If there is a theme to this year’s election, it’s President Donald Trump.

“If you are a self-identified Republican you are fully behind the president. If you are a self-identified Democrat, you are fully against the president,” Bitzer said. “I think with no real sense of a centralized race statewide to focus on, it is all about Trump. Republicans want it to be a nationalized contest. Democrats, I think, are more focused on local aspects and dynamics.”

Positive campaign strategies have been dwarfed this year by sharper rhetoric, Bitzer said. “I think it’s all about energy, and mobilization, and anger.”