Arizona set a turnout record for the primary election with just over 36% of registered voters casting a ballot, and pollsters believe record numbers are likely for November, too.
Indeed, Democrats have been catching up, and political observers anticipate the performance by the two major parties will narrow considerably in the general election, making some races even more competitive.
The official canvass results from the August 4 primary show that more than 1.45 million Arizonans voted, making the Republican and Democratic split the narrowest margin in recent history.
Voters asked for 752,223 Republican ballots and 694,891 Democratic ballots, which comes out to roughly a 52-48 split.
A mere two years ago, Republican ballots outnumbered Democratic ballots by a 12-point margin (56-44). In 2016, that margin stood at 61-38 (R+23), and in 2014, Republicans led, 63-37.
Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy for HighGround Public Affairs, said Republican ballots in the primary made up at least 60% of overall turnout going back to 2000. He noted that the largest Republican gains occurred during the primaries in 2008 to 2010, the first election after Barack Obama became president.
Within that time frame, Republican ballots increased to 600,000 from 360,000, rising by 65%, he said.
Now the momentum has swung in the opposite direction.
Democrats saw similar gains six years later, increasing their turnout by 40% from 2016 to 2018, and then by another 32% this year, Bentz noted.
Indeed, Republicans cast nearly 230,000 more ballots than Democrats in the primaries four years ago. That fell to 57,000 this year.
“(There have been) massive increases in Democrat enthusiasm,” the pollster said.
Bentz said more Republicans are still turning out every election cycle, although Democrats and independents who pick a Democratic ballot are starting to considerably trim the margin.
“Republicans always over-participate,” he said, referring to the fact that the percent of Republicans who vote is larger than the percent of Republicans who are registered to vote. On the Democratic side, about 29% turned out to vote in the 2018 primary compared to 38% this year.
“Suddenly Republicans are being caught by Democrats when it comes to enthusiasm in participation,” Bentz said, adding that future elections look good for Democrats
**More Arizonans chose early voting**
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs certified the canvass on the morning of August 17. She noted that about 88% of ballots cast came from early voting, saying it “provides more proof that Arizona’s ballot by mail system works.”
Crucially, Republicans outvoted Democrats by a mere 3,500 ballots for early voting, yet another example of Democrats narrowing the turnout gap.
Bentz is anticipating a “surge” in the upcoming general election. Two years ago, pundits called it the “Blue Wave.” That “wave” resulted in Democrats securing the Secretary of State’s Office, and the state superintendent of public instruction, positions that had been in Republican hands for years.
He noted that preliminary primary election data in Maricopa County show that independent and unaffiliated voters leaned Democratic with 51% requesting a Democratic ballot, and that, in comparison, 39% requested a Republican ballot, while 10% asked for a municipal or non-partisan ballot.
But don’t expect Democratic turnout to be higher than Republicans – or at least not yet.
“It still seems unlikely that 2020 will be the year that Democrat participation exceeds Republican participation, but if the primary election is any indication, they may get close,” Bentz said.
**A historic election amid a global pandemic**
Arizona accomplished record-breaking results even during a pandemic, which is no small feat.
“Preparing for a primary is an immense undertaking, even under normal circumstances,” Hobbs said. “The complexity this year has been compounded by the pandemic. In spite of this, turnout hit a historic high.”
Yavapai County set the record for a single county’s turnout in a primary with 51.5%, the first time a county crossed the 50% threshold. Gila County came in second, hitting a 47.4% turnout. Maricopa County reached 851,000 votes this year compared to 696,000 in 2018 and 553,000 in 2016, putting its turnout at 35% – right on par with the state overall but in the middle of the pack for all counties. Yuma County had the lowest voter turnout at 26% – only 25,000 ballots were cast out of 96,000 registered voters.
Some election experts mapped out Arizona by county and speculated that the most important races will be in districts in Maricopa County and Yuma County, where turnout is close enough to make them swing counties.
Yuma County is fascinating – it’s the only county with more registered third party voters than either major party – 30% Republican, 34% Democratic and 36% other – and yet more Republican ballots were cast in the county this year with overall turnout fairly low.
Many expect the partisan performance in November to become the slimmest yet in history.
Historically, Republicans have enjoyed a 12 or 14-point advantage in mid-term general elections. In a presidential election year, that typically shrinks to 7-8 points.
In 2018, Republican ballots still outnumbered both Democrats and others, such as independent and Libertarians. But the GOP advantage shrank to 7 points – the final breakdown was 40% Republican, 33% Democratic and 27% other.
Pollsters closely consider the turnout from the last general election when coming up with polling methodology. Bentz previously told Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, that he expects voter performance to look more like Republicans plus 4 points compared to Republicans plus 7 two years ago. In 2016, Republicans outperformed Democrats by 7 points.
Bentz now considers polling at a slimmer margin, given what he saw in the primary.
Joshua Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster at Lake Research Partners, said local candidates and campaigns deserve credit for running solid campaigns during the primary cycle, and their enthusiasm likely influenced which ballots non-party affiliated voters picked.
“What it points to overall is just this general continued movement in Arizona,” Ulibarri said. “Independents are feeling more alienated by (the) Republican Party.”
He believes this feeling of alienation will only carry over into November, when Arizonans will get the chance to vote between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
But more than just voting for a president, Ulibarri said, “We need people to show up and vote down ballot.”