Laslo Boyd: It’s All About Turnout

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By: Laslo Boyd 

This Tuesday’s election will be determined by who can lure the most supporters to the polls. That may seem like a tautology but, in the aftermath of a dreary campaign that failed to energize or motivate voters, organizational efforts are likely to be decisive.

In this showdown, Anthony Brown starts with a distinct advantage.  First, he has a much larger potential pool from which to draw. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Maryland two-to-one, Brown should have a much easier time finding supporters.

Additionally, Hogan’s lack of campaign funds — he ended up accepting public financing — is likely to limit how much money he has available for Election Day activities. If Brown hasn’t squandered all his money on those terrible, negative commercials, he should have a significant ground operation functioning on Tuesday.

Turnout will be the unknown variable in this equation. National polls in the last month suggest that we will see disturbingly low rates of participation in elections all over the country. That outcome would be in keeping with recent trends.

Turnout in the June Primary Election was awful. Only about 20% of voters registered in Maryland made the effort to participate in the most fundamental of democratic processes.  Moreover, that low rate was part of a trend in falling voter participation that dates back to the 1994 Primary.

We have too many indicators of disenchantment with government and politics in this country. The approval level for Congress is just barely in double figures even though almost all incumbents who are on the ballot will be re-elected. President Obama’s approval ratings are so low that few Democrats have wanted his help in their campaigns (though Brown’s campaign did bring him in for a rally). Generally, confidence in the institutions of government is lagging. Respect for those who work in government, as elected officials or civil servants, has also fallen to historic low levels.

On the right, the Tea Party movement, if you exclude the crazies, represents a backlash against big government. Recent examples of bureaucratic incompetence, including the blunders of the Secret Service, the Veterans Administration and the rollout of the Affordable Care website, all provide concrete reinforcement for the skeptics.

Critics on the left are dismayed by government spying, wars breaking out without any significant debate, and a growing inequality gap that policy makers are unable or unwilling to correct. 

And if all of that weren’t enough, economic recovery, and especially job creation, has been painfully slow.

In that environment of disengagement and distrust, what level of turnout can be expected in this year’s gubernatorial election?

Curiously, despite the fact that primary elections are the decisive ones for many offices in the country, Americans take much more seriously their obligation to vote in General Elections than in primaries. We should, however, keep even those numbers in perspective. Turnout in American elections is, on the whole, significantly less than for elections in many other democracies, including most of Western Europe. To cite a recent example, the turnout for the Scottish Independence referendum was 85%.

Across the country, turnout is invariably higher in presidential years than in the off-year elections. In Maryland, we vote for our state officials in the off year, which means that fewer voters participate than when the presidency is being contested.

In 2010, the election pitting incumbent Governor Martin O’Malley against former Governor Bob Ehrlich attracted 54% of registered voters. That was a repeat of the 2006 election and was widely seen as a hard-fought campaign between two well-known politicians.

Yet, the 2006 version had a slightly higher rate of voting of 57%.  And that figure was less than in the previous three General Elections, each of which saw turnout around 60%.

What can we expect this year and what impact will it have?  Given the dismal turnout in June and lackluster campaigns by both gubernatorial candidates, it is unlikely that there will be a surge in voters this year.

Some analysts point to the ability of campaigns to get their sure-voters to the polls during the early voting phase, but, so far, there’s no evidence that early voting actually increases overall turnout.

Who benefits from turnout that is closer to 50% than to 60%? We know from previous elections that Republicans turn out to vote in slightly higher percentages than Democrats.  On its face, however, given the two-to-one advantage in registered voters that Democrats have in Maryland, that may not have much impact on the outcome of this race.

Independents, also known as unaffiliated voters, tend to show up at even lower rates than party identifiers, but about 200,000 of them are likely to vote. They could make a difference in a close election, but shouldn’t be a significant factor if Anthony Brown gets Democrats to the polls.

If you look at the state by counties, turnout tends to be slightly lower in the jurisdictions that should be Brown’s base, including Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, and, counter intuitively, Montgomery County. Still, these three areas have so many more voters than the smaller counties which often go Republican that small differences in turnout rates shouldn’t matter.

However, if the indicators that this will be a close election are correct, then marginal differences in turnout will matter.  An election that has been dominated by negative ads, relatively little substantive policy discussions, and a fatigue among voters with politics in general may convince occasional voters that it’s not worth the effort. On balance, that outcome will hurt Anthony Brown more than it will impact Larry Hogan.

As the electorate shrinks, the Democratic registration advantage fades.  Similarly, if both candidates are wrestling in the mud, there is less to distinguish the presumed front-runner from the challenger.

Anthony Brown has taken an election that should have been a cakewalk and turned it to a competitive one. He may still prevail, but he and Larry Hogan together have produced one of the least inspiring campaigns in memory. Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the citizens of Maryland and confidence in the political process have been the big losers.
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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.