Last-minute ballots helped some Republican candidates and conservative causes surge to victory after Election Night, reversing the historical trend of late-counted ballots favoring Arizona Democrats.
GOP-leads grew in several races well after November 8 as election officials spent days or more counting vote-by-mail, or early ballots, which had been turned in at election offices and polls at the last possible moment. Those “late-early ballots” typically favor Democrats, who have in the past used vigorous get out the vote campaigns that included offers to deliver ballots to post offices or election headquarters on behalf of voters.
The tactic of so-called “ballot harvesting” was banned by the Arizona Legislature earlier this year, and perhaps had some depression on Democratic voter turnout. But more so, it was a last-minute push by Republican voters, many of whom held onto their votes as long as they could before delivering their ballots with little time to spare, according to campaign consultants.
“This year, I actually think Republicans did better, or at least less bad than Democrats did,” said George Khalaf, a GOP pollster with Data Orbital. “Late-early ballots definitely favored, 100 percent, Republicans.”
In the Legislative District 28 Senate race, Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, watched an election night lead evaporate, as Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, slowly added to her lead with each day of ballot count updates from Maricopa County election officials.
Initial, unofficial ballot counts showed Meyer leading with roughly 51 percent of the vote.
Brophy McGee took the lead before the night was over, with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Late ballot counts padded that lead almost daily until election officials finished counting ballots on November 18. Instead of climbing back from behind to victory, Meyer eventually lost by 2,312 votes.
“Usually, because we have a better ground game and drive more of our late ballots in, we tend to pick up, and that’s historically what I’ve been used to,” Meyer said. “Every other race I’ve won, I was the one that was behind and then came back over the course of the next week or so.”
In fact, Meyer took an Election Night lead of roughly 2,000 votes in 2014, when he ran against Brophy McGee and Republican Shawnna Bolick for one of two seats in the Arizona House. With Brophy McGee firmly in the lead, Meyer needed only to beat Bolick, and thanks to late-early ballots, his lead grew after Election Night to roughly 2,600 votes.
Meyer’s loss to Brophy McGee this year was one of several races in which late-early ballots pushed Republicans over the top, according to Khalaf, who added that the anti-marijuana legalization campaign, Arizona Corporation Commission GOP candidate Boyd Dunn, and other conservative causes all benefited from the GOP’s overwhelming advantage in post-Election Night vote counts.
And Meyer lost despite multiple polls that showed he had a clear lead roughly 10 days before Election Day, Khalaf said.
“The leads had been oscillating in that district for the state Senate,” he said. “The last though, about 10 days out, he was up just outside the margin of error.”
Meyer’s chances waned when Republicans caught up to the Democrats’ initial early voting advantage, according to campaign consultant Chuck Coughlin, who said Republicans were holding onto their ballots far longer than usual due to the top of the ticket.
Republican voters who were considering voting against president-elect Donald Trump decided to vote with their base after all, he said.
“I think they decided at the end they just could not” back Hillary Clinton, Coughlin said. “They came back to the fold as we suspected they might.”
Meyer suspects the presidential election swayed some voters in LD28.
“I went to enough doors myself, and there was a change, and it essentially occurred 10 days before the election at the doors, where the independents and moderate Republicans who were in our persuasion universe were in our way,” Meyer said. “But I think the (FBI) announcement combined with another Wikileak, as well as the Obama(care) rate increases had an impact on the last 10 days of the race.”
Prior to those announcements, voters were receptive to Meyer, he said. But in the last several days of the campaign, “the presidential race became more of a litmus test, so you had people then asking, well who are you voting for for president, and if you were voting for Hillary at that point, they weren’t voting for me. So I think there was a significant change in the way the electorate viewed the race, and that played out in those ballot returns you’re talking about,” Meyer said.
Brophy McGee was skeptical that Trump had a coattails effect in LD28, where she said voters take a nuanced approach when casting their ballots.
“I don’t think this is the kind of district where you can make those assumptions,” she said. “I would be very interested to see who won the presidential election in this district. But as engaged District 28 voters, it wasn’t a question of would they vote, it was a question of who they’d vote for.”
Brophy McGee said she spoke with many voters who struggled with a decision at the top of the ticket, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t made up their mind in other races.
“(Voters) had their ballot done, they were good to go, but they were still thinking about the top of the ticket… and certainly there was a wave of enthusiasm that I felt in the field, but I never didn’t feel that. They just had a decision they had to make,” Brophy McGee. “What I picked up from my district voters was that there was a larger preference by far for Hillary Clinton than there was for Trump, and I, too, was struggling with my decision,” Brophy McGee said.
However, she wouldn’t say who she voted for.
“I will tell you that my vote is private. Good men died so that I could vote in private,” she said.
Coughlin said the late sway was due not just to Trump, but in part to what he called a weak “closing argument” by Clinton.
“The rule historically, and I think it’s more true now more than ever, particularly in close races, is you have to have a really good close,” Coughlin said. In an election year that was all about change, Clinton didn’t pitch change, he said.
As for a wave of bad news – including the FBI investigation, Wikileaks, Obamacare premiums rising – “it took momentum out of the room,” Coughlin said.