Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Turnout and Loyalty in Gubernatorial Elections

Last month, after my second post on Massachusetts Independents, Chris of Left Center Left took me to task for ignoring the most important question raised by my analysis then. If, as polls showed, Massachusetts Democrats and Democratic leaning Independents form a majority of registered voters, why have they been so unsuccessful in electing a Democratic governor? Others can focus on specific strategies, candidates or campaigns, but I want to explore two factors: loyalty and turnout. When you look at Democrats in the past two elections, they are less likely to vote for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and they are less likely to come out to vote than their Republican counterparts.

Let's look first at turnout, since I'm more comfortable with those numbers. If we take the historical party enrollment numbers and compare them to exit polls from 1998 and 2002 (PDF), we can get an estimate of turnout among subgroups in each year.

Party% of all VotesTotal RegisteredEstimated Turnout

Party% of all VotesTotal RegisteredEstimated Turnout

The chart shows first the breakdown of the electorate from election day exit polls, the number of registered voters in each category, and then the percentage of those registered voters that bothered to show up. Notice that in both years the Republicans are disproportionally represented on election day. Note also that while overall turnout was better in 2002 than 1998, it was mostly due to increased GOP numbers than Independents or Democrats.

Why do Republicans turn out in greater percentages than Democrats? For one thing, since there are fewer of them, it's easier to hit those targets. Registering as a Republican in Massachusetts also implies a certain level of commitment given how lopsided our representation is. In any case, there certainly is no excuse for a 20 point difference in turnout as compared to Democrats in 2002. It's amazing that Shannon O'Brien only lost by five percentage points.

This also points out, to me anyway, the danger of crafting a strategy geared towards appeals to Unenrolled voters. Fewer than one out of two Independents even bother to vote in these gubernatorial elections, so there is a lot of effort devoted to people the least likely to turn out.

Admittedly, these numbers are a bit deceptive. In terms of actual numbers of people who came out, there were about 100,000 more Independents than Democrats each year and twice as many Democrats as Republicans. In order to better explain why these two races went to the GOP candidate, we have to look at who these groups voted for. While I do not have exit polls for 2002 with these breakdowns available (I hope to have them eventually), we do have the percentages from the 1998 race.

PartyVoted HarshbargerVoted Cellucci

Notice that Independents voted for the Democrat around 37% of the time. This matches almost exactly the percentage reported in last month's Gallup survey, which showed that 39% of Massachusetts Independents lean towards Democrats. Given that, I'm comfortable assuming that in 2002 the percentage of Independent voters for O'Brien was roughly the same. Beside that, notice that only three out of four Democrats cast their vote for the Democratic candidate, Scott Harshbarger. Republicans were significantly more loyal to their candidate.

Even under these conditions, however, it is still possible for a Democrat to win the corner office. If we assume that one out of four Democrats vote Republican, as do 61% of Independents, Democrats still win if they match Republican turnout. This is true both if we bring Democratic turnout up to the level of Republicans or if we bring down the GOP vote to Democratic levels (even assuming that 13% of Republicans will vote for the Democrat).

CandidateActual %Result with GOP Turnout %Result with Dem Turnout %
Scott Harshbarger48.3%50.6%53.7%
Paul Cellucci51.7%49.4%46.3%

CandidateActual %Result with GOP Turnout %Result with Dem Turnout %
Mitt Romney49.8%46.8%44.0%
Shannon O'Brien44.9%48.6%49.9%
All Others5.3%5.3%5.3%

The first column in these tables shows the actual results. The second shows what the result would have been if Democratic turnout rate had been raised to the level of the Republican turnout. The third column shows the electoral result if the Republicans had turned out only to the level that the Democrats did. The results are similar in each case. If Democratic and Republican turnout rates are the same, with the noted assumptions, Democrats win. By way of a target, if we assume that Republicans and Independents turn out at 2002 levels and break toward the Democrat at similar rates, the Democratic turnout needs to be roughly 70% -- just over a million voters -- to ensure victory.

For entertainment purposes, let's also take a look at the 2004 presidential election. Democrats were remarkably disciplined, according to exit polls and voted for John Kerry roughly 95% of the time, and turnout among Dems was around 75%. Given those figures, in order for George W. Bush to have won Massachusetts, Independents would have had to have voted for him at a rate of 3 to 1. While this sort of discipline is probably unrealistic for a gubernatorial contest, it does illustrate exactly what can happen when Democrats turn out in force.