Laslo Boyd: The Vanishing Voter

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By: Laslo Boyd 

In 1994, nearly 40% of registered voters turned out in the Primary Election for Maryland Governor.   That was also the last time before this year in which there were seriously contested primaries for the gubernatorial nomination in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. 

As it turned out on Election Day, the Democratic Primary wasn’t all that close, with Prince George’s County Executive Parris Glendening winning 54% of the vote over a field of rivals that included Lt. Governor Mickey Steinberg.  Ellen Sauerbrey defeated Helen Bentley for the Republican nomination that year but lost an incredibly close General Election to Glendening.

With some fluctuations, the turnout trend has been decidedly downward since then, reaching its nadir in 2010 when only 25% of registered voters showed up at the polls on Primary Election Day.

Predicting turnout for this year’s June 24 Primary is more than a parlor game or a bit of insider baseball.  The path to victory for any candidate includes identifying likely supporters and figuring out how many of them will actually vote on Election Day (and during the period of early voting).

Is the drop from 40% turnout to 25% merely a function of non-contested elections?  With three candidates in this year’s race, two prepared to spend millions of dollars on television ads and the third demonstrating a high level of commitment among supporters, will turnout approach the 40% level of 1994?

Or is the decline a pattern that is influenced by other factors as well and that has, in turn, had an impact on voters?  One of the things we know from numerous election studies is that voting, and similarly non-voting, is a habit.  This is the reason that all the campaigns are focusing their outreach efforts on so-called “super voters,” individuals who turn out election after election regardless of who is on the ballot.

Far fewer voters show up in a non-presidential year.  That’s a fact of American politics.  Participation is generally lower than in most Western European democracies as well.  Yet, in both 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign managed to get large numbers of people to the polls, including young voters, Hispanics, and African Americans, groups who usually turn out in lower proportions than the rest of the voting population.

Will candidates in Maryland be able to replicate the success of the Obama campaign?  The answer is probably no.  His campaign pioneered the sophisticated use of social media, brought micro-targeting of voters to a new level, and, in 2012, had an extraordinarily successful get-out-the vote effort.

At this point, we really don’t know whether any of these campaigns will achieve comparable success.  Anthony Brown’s campaign may tout having Jim Messina, one of the architect’s of the Obama effort, as an advisor, but all indications are that he is much more engaged these days with David Cameron’s Conservative Party in England. 

Heather Mizeur looks like she’s going to be the most effective of the three candidates in converting face-to-face contacts into voters, but meeting enough people directly in a statewide race is very hard to do.

There’s more in the numbers to consider.  In 1994, the four biggest jurisdictions—Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County – accounted for 65% of the votes cast in the Democratic Primary.  The number was almost identical in 2010, but the distribution had changed significantly.  Baltimore City dropped from 24.5% of the total to 13.2%, and its turnout rate in the last two primaries has been about 15% each time.

In 1994, the City and Prince George’s County constituted 40% of the total Democratic vote.  In 2010, the proportion had dropped to slightly more than 32%.  In assessing the likely impact of these two jurisdictions on the upcoming Primary, much of the election analysis has used registered voters as the baseline. It is certainly arguable that turnout is a far more significant measure.

Predicting – much less producing – turnout is far from certain.   Will millions of dollars of television ads motivate voters or turn them off?  Will anything that happens in the remaining weeks of the campaign engage voters who, up to this point, do not seem to be paying much attention? 

Polls show Anthony Brown well ahead.  How good are the pollsters at calculating turnout?  In past elections, surges in turnout have left some pollsters with a good bit of egg on their face.  The same result could occur if turnout falls well below projections.

There is also the vexing issue of the new date of the Primary Election.  June 24 falls at the beginning of the vacation season, after schools have let out, and is, in addition, an unfamiliar date to voters.  

Finally, it’s not at all clear that any of the candidates — though I would allow a slight exception for Mizeur — have really inspired or excited voters.  Brown is running a very cautious and careful campaign, largely focused on his biography and on the popularity among Democrats of Martin O’Malley.  And he does still have the health care web site fiasco hanging over his candidacy.

Doug Gansler’s campaign has had trouble getting beyond the early disclosures and gaffes that, for some, confirm a view of him as undisciplined and having poor judgment.  And, as the most recent flap about his comments on Brown’s military service demonstrates, his opponent is quick to jump on any perceived misstep or slight.

With all that information available, you’d probably want to bet that the turnout on June 24 will be closer to 25% than to 40%, probably much closer.  It is often said that we get the government we deserve.  Do we care enough to get up and go to the polls?

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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.