By Eliza Steffen
Through the latest primaries at the end of June, voter turnout increased, with 13 million voters so far in the Democratic primaries (up from 8.7 at this point in 2014), and 12.3 million in Republican races, an increase of 2 million.
Many believe that this apparent rush to the polls is driven by President Donald Trump. According to the Pew Research Center 60 percent of primary voters were influenced to vote (negatively or positively) by the president. So, how important is this trend? Will it continue into the November midterms? And what role do state legislatures have in all of this?
I talked to Lou Cannon, pictured at left, former senior White House correspondent for The Washington Post for over 25 years and author of several acclaimed biographies of Ronald Reagan, to get a more historical perspective. I got that, and a bit more.
Cannon was aware of the apparent surge but was quick to remind me that voter turnout has always been lower than we might assume, or might like, especially for primary and midterm elections. He agreed, though, with the analysis that Trump likely is a main cause for the upturn, saying “The people I talk to in California, including local elected officials, they think the reason is Trump. The president provokes strong responses from his critics and from his narrow but committed base.”
Cannon offered the 2010 midterms as the most comparable point in history, when “a lot of people came out to vote against Obama because they were stirred up by the Affordable Care Act.” Because the ACA had not yet become operative, candidates “could say anything about it they wanted to say, and there were wild things said on both sides.” However, because the 2010 analog was much more about a specific policy than about “presidential personality,” Cannon thinks we may be moving into uncharted territory in November.
In terms of primaries, Cannon is cautious to place too much weight on them, in part because closed primaries in many states means a portion of the electorate can’t vote: “If you can’t participate in a primary election, but you are energized, it won’t show up in the primaries. That’s why I place a great deal of stock in the general vote." 2018 was the first year that unaffiliated voters in Colorado were allowed to cast a ballot in the primaries: 281,000 sent in either a Democratic or Republican ballot, so that accounts for at least some of the increase in primary participation in the Centennial State.
Instead of reading tea leaves in primary turnout, Cannon recommends paying attention to historical voter trends. “Most times during the first midterm of an administration, the party in power in the White House loses seats. Most Americans do like divided government.” The tendency towards divided government continues on the state level. Congress might get more attention, but "Republicans have advanced their agenda of lower taxes, restrictions on abortion and other issues they care about since 2010 [through state legislatures rather] than in Congress, because Congress has been gridlocked.” Although it is too soon to evaluate President Barack Obama’s legacy, Cannon said it was “just terrible in terms of [electing Democratic] legislative candidates,” meaning that if Trump has a similar effect on candidates “some of these state houses are going to shift” to the other party’s control.
If states and the federal government continue to shift farther apart, Cannon thinks abortion rights could be one of the first issues on the table: “If Roe v. Wade is tampered with, you are going to find progressive states that are going to pass their own laws protecting a woman’s right to choose to some degree...so who controls the legislature [on the state level] will be terribly important.” His predictions are already coming true: on Monday, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill repealing an 173-year old statute banning abortion in response to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.
Overall, “both sides have an uneasy relationship with federalism,” and to Cannon, parties tend to favor it when it advances their issues and disfavor it when it doesn’t. For instance, Democrats support states’ rights in the case of sanctuary cities, but have pushed for federal action in issues like civil rights.
Finally, he noted that in the Supreme Court, some things he expected to happen didn’t, namely a clearer decision on the partisan redistricting cases, Gill v. Whitford from Wisconsin or Benisek v. Lamone from Maryland. For better or worse “Justice Kennedy wanted to do something about gerrymandering. In the end, he couldn’t figure out how to do it.” Now, says Cannon, it will be up to a future court to resolve.
Eliza Steffen is a student at Stanford University and an intern with NCSL's Elections and Redistricting program.