Early voting an auspicious sign for Democrats, but …

Early voting an auspicious sign for Democrats, but …

Democrats have consistently led Republicans in returning early ballots this year, raising hopes for some that Arizona will finally shift from red or purple to blue.

But as Democrats lead in turning out new and infrequent voters – for example, those who haven’t voted in the last four elections – Republicans are poised to see an influx of loyal frequent voters on Election Day who could sway the election back in favor of the GOP. 

As of October 28, more than 2 million people have already voted throughout Arizona, according to data compiled by Democratic strategist Sam Almy. Of those, about 841,553 are Democrats, compared to 784,595 Republicans. Democrats have a 8.4 percentage point lead in turnout, and an almost 57,000-ballot lead in early returns. The trend is an inversion of previous elections, in which Republicans generally surge in early voting and see their margins diminish nearing Election Day.

Democrats have already exceeded their 2016 turnout of 47.4% by around 12 percentage points, while Republicans are floating just around their 2016 turnout of 49.3%.

Republican turnout remains healthy, said Paul Bentz, a GOP pollster with HighGround Public Affairs Consultants,  but it’s been dwarfed by intense Democratic turnout. 

Paul Bentz (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
Paul Bentz (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

“Usually what happens in these races is that Republicans turn out early, and then the Democrats and others catch up,” he said. “This is sort of the opposite effect, where Democrats got to an early lead and now Republicans are starting to try to catch up.”

As a result of that inversion, Democratic margins are likely to diminish, a point that the party’s own strategists concede — as of Thursday, Republicans had already inched ahead in Maricopa County, though Democrats still led statewide.

But if they can hold their lead, strong returns could be evidence of significant Democratic turnout that – in conjunction with a perfect storm of other factors – tips the scales in the Legislature and reaches far out into GOP territory. 

Almy, who formerly managed voter data for the Arizona Democratic Party, said he has never seen returns so favorable to Democrats. “Clearly, Democrats are voting like crazy right now, they’re way up,” he said.

One obvious reason, he said, is President Trump, naturally the biggest driver of turnout for both parties in a presidential election year. 

“But in addition to that, Democrats are also up in these newly registered voters that I think are changing the electorate,” Almy added.

Youth turnout far exceeds 2016 numbers: voters aged 18 to 29 have already cast more than 137,000 ballots, compared to a total of slightly less than 89,000 in the 2016 election. But many young voters are still holding on to their ballots, at higher rates than older voters.

Almy’s data shows that roughly 25% of voters aged 18-24 and 28% of voters aged 25 to 34 who requested early ballots have returned them. By contrast, more than 68% of voters older than 65 and more than 53% of voters between 55 and 64 have returned their ballots.

Older voters tend to skew more conservative, meaning disappointing youth turnout could hurt Democratic chances. Liberal-leaning groups like NextGen America, which has spent the election cycle registering young voters and reminding them to vote, are pulling out all the stops to see that the roughly 900,000 young voters who have yet to cast their ballots get to the polls. 

Kristi Johnston
Kristi Johnston

“We’re not taking a victory lap anytime soon,” NextGen Arizona spokeswoman Kristi Johnston said.

NextGen’s efforts highlight one reason why Democrats are doing well thus far – success among low-propensity voters.

Among newly registered voters, 42% of those who have already cast ballots are Democrats, while just 28% are Republicans. As of last week, of voters who have not cast a ballot in any of the last four general elections, 37% of those who have already voted are Democrats, while just 25% are Republicans. (Notably, independents in that category are slightly outpacing even Democratic returns.) 

Of those who have voted in only one of the last four general elections, 43% of those who have already voted are Democrats, while just 28% are Republicans. 

Almy noted that these may not all actually be new voters, as a person’s voter history begins when they register in a new state – so some could have previously voted in another state. 

Either way, Democrats are leading Republicans among these voters, and whether they’re truly first-timers or transplants from California, they’re a big reason for the demographic shifts that appear to be propelling Democrats forward, Almy said. 

“This has an effect down-ballot,” he added – even in districts that look solidly Republican on paper.

“You look at the returns for District 23 and District 11, it mirrors a lot of the state where Democrats are returning at a much faster rate than Republicans,” he added. 

Supporters of President Donald Trump wait in line to attend a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Supporters of President Donald Trump wait in line to attend a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As of this week, Democrats have an almost 17 percentage point turnout advantage in Legislative District 11, and almost 15 percentage points in Legislative District 23. Four years ago, at this point in the election, Republicans handily led in returns in both districts. Democrats now lead at this early stage in LD11, and have significantly closed the gap in LD23. 

By October 27 in 2016, Democrats had returned 18,554 ballots in the Scottsdale/Fountain Hills district. By the same date this year, they had returned almost double that amount – 33,587. 

The tried-and-true Democratic strategy in Arizona is to run to the middle. And while the party is clearly still employing this tactic, the cumulative effect of years of organizing plus new interest from national groups – not to mention ungodly amounts of outside money – has helped unlock new voters.

“Each group has their target voter universe, and we’re seeing all of those efforts come together really nicely,” said Charlie Fisher, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. 

While his organization has largely targeted moderate or independent voters, he noted that others have been working specifically to turn out low-propensity voters who might lean more progressive. 

“It’s encouraging to see those zero-four voters turn out at higher rates,” he said, referring to those who haven’t voted in any of the past four general  elections. 

Iconic singer Cher speaks near a polling station as she campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Iconic singer Cher speaks near a polling station as she campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

However, this is a bit of a double-edged sword.

Democrats have a huge advantage among “4X4” voters who’ve voted in the past four elections, noted Republican pollster George Khalaf – about 69% of Democratic 4X4 voters who requested a mail-in ballot have already voted, while only half of all Republicans 4X4 voters who requested a ballot have mailed it in or dropped it off. 

But because those people will almost certainly cast a ballot, what that shows is that Republicans are waiting to vote on Election Day, and could do so in significant numbers. This also seems to show that Trump’s anti-mail ballot message had some effect on his supporters. 

Of course, that strategy has pitfalls – as many things can happen to prevent voters from showing up on Election Day. But Khalaf said he expects just about everyone to do everything in their power to get to the polls.

“I think people will walk through glass to vote this year,” he said.

While recent developments including the Senate confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett may solidify support from Trump’s Republican base, Bentz said that isn’t as relevant as Trump’s frequent visits to Arizona. October 28 marked his seventh visit to the state this year, and Trump family members, Cabinet officials and other surrogates have made multiple public appearances in Arizona each week leading up to the election. 

“It’s apparent to me that they know they have a challenge here in Arizona, because otherwise he wouldn’t be here so often,” Bentz said.

But while the battle in Arizona is usually over suburban Republican women who could be swayed to vote for Democrats, the Trump campaign appears to have left that demographic behind, Bentz said. Instead, the president’s campaign appears focused on running up the margins in heavily Republican areas like Bullhead City and the far West Valley – where GOP enthusiasm could push Trump over the top but not help down-ballot Republicans.

Trump is also hoping to win the rural areas by a larger margin to counteract a potential loss in Maricopa County, which makes up roughly 60% of the state’s entire electorate. Diane Douglas, the Republican former-Superintendent of Public Instruction, is believed to be the only person to win a statewide race in Arizona who lost in Maricopa County in 2014. She maximized her efforts in rural areas, where Republicans tend to do well. 

“What could happen is we could see the president eke out a victory, but leave not very long coattails,” Bentz said. “Republicans in some of these swing districts could still lose.” 

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking turnout trends in Arizona and several swing states, Chief Strategy Officer Seth Levi said it’s important not to read too much into voting trends. 

 “I think there’s something to be said for enthusiasm, seeing that Democratic voters appear to be returning them faster, but at the end of the day, 100% of Republican voters may end up returning their ballots,” he said. “There’s just no way for us to know that today.”