Sunday, October 28, 2018

Understanding NC's Politics: Past Registered Voter Turnout Rates

As we finalize this mid-term election with the last week of early voting in-person and the big day coming on November 6, it may be helpful to understand what the past trends have been for registered voter turnout, but it's important to note that this may not necessarily help us understand what 2018's turnout will be.

As evident in the early voting, we're nearing 20 percent turnout so far of the 7 million plus registered voters.

For an overview, the past trends of North Carolina's registered voter turnout rate shows the ups of a presidential year and the drop in a mid-term year (data from the NC State Board of Elections' website):

The odd mid-term year in North Carolina was 1990, with the infamous Jesse Helms-Harvey Gantt battle for a U.S. Senate seat. Otherwise, most mid-terms settle into the mid-40's for a turnout of the registered voter pool, while recent presidential years have seen nearly 70 percent turnout.

But there are other methods of measuring turnout in the Old North State, and one of them is by party registration:

Again, the differences between presidential years and mid-terms is particularly striking, and even more so among the three major party registrations in the state. The 2004 presidential election year may have seemed close, but it was a 13 point win by George W. Bush, while the identical partisan turnout rate in 2008 mirrored the almost evenly divided results (Obama winning by 0.4 percent). The presidential elections of 2012 and 2016 and subsequent Republican wins by Romney and Trump (by 2 and almost 4 percent) demonstrate the higher GOP turnout rates as well.

But in mid-terms, it's the differences in both the political environments of the time and the partisan turnout rates that are of interest. In 2006, a Democratic wave year as the second mid-term under the growing unpopularity of George W. Bush, Democrats tied Republicans with a similar turnout rate. In 2010's Tea Party revolution within the GOP, half of registered Republicans cast ballots, while only 44 percent of registered Democrats did. And in the 1.6 percent win by Thom Tillis in 2014 against Kay Hagan for a U.S. Senate seat, a majority of Republicans cast ballots, with Democrats at 46 percent.

Notice in all years since 2002, however, the performance of unaffiliated voters...or perhaps a better description, the lack of performance in showing up to vote among this group.

Another way of analyzing registered voter turnout is by race and ethnicity:

In regards to voter race, the notable year of 2008 marked a significant transition in presidential elections in North Carolina, with black/African-American voters turning out to support the nation's first black presidential candidate, and then again in 2012 for Obama's re-election bid. In 2016, black turnout slipped back to 64 percent, while white turnout matched their 2008 peak turnout. In mid-terms, the 'blue-moon' election of 2006 showed the lowest of the three past mid-term elections, while major top-of-the-ballot races of U.S. Senate contests tend to bring out 46 percent of white voters, 40-42 percent of black voters, and 25 percent of voters of all other races.

In terms of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, while Hispanics had a sizable percentage in 2004, their voter registration numbers were quite low: only a little over 10,000 registered Hispanic/Latino voters. As their numbers grew in the voter pool, their turnout rates have dropped to the lowest turnout rates of the four groups in the chart above.

Another way to view turnout is by generational cohorts. North Carolina's voter pool now has a plurality of voters under the age of 37: Millennials and Generation Z. But as is the case, younger voters often fail to exercise their political power and voice in elections.

Here are the trends for the past few NC elections by generational cohorts:

Especially in the past two mid-term elections, Millennials (now aged 22-37 years old) have not even cracked 20 percent of their registered voter. And as a sense of comparison, here are the percentages of each generational cohort within the voter pool/eligible electorate since 2008 in North Carolina:

Currently, Millennials and Generation Z make up 32 percent of the voter pool (as of 10-27), with Baby Boomers at 31 percent, Generation X at 26 percent, and the Greatest/Silent generation at 10 percent.

As most political scientists and analysts are prone to say at this point in the campaign, "it's all about turnout." And with the numbers of early votes that have been coming in (see this post for the half-way point analysis of NC early voting, and for a daily updates, see @OldNorthStPol on Twitter), the dynamics are a bit weird this year: there's nothing really to compare 2018 against, since we have 18 days of early voting, a blue-moon election cycle, and yet enthusiasm (i.e., voter participation) is higher than any other recent mid-term in the Old North State, mirroring what is going on in several other states.

To say that we may be surprised come the evening of November 6th may be one of the understatements of this electoral cycle--and there's been plenty of understatements to go around this campaign.