Pennsylvania Democrats showed up.
Despite a sleepy presidential race, the coronavirus pandemic, and historic protests against systemic racism, more than 1.57 million Democrats voted for president in the state’s primary election this month, down about 6.5% from the 2016 primary. By comparison, the Republican vote fell 29%.
The surprisingly robust Democratic showing was fueled by a surge of voting by mail in the last statewide contest before November’s general election, when the state could determine the presidency. Democrats returned more than 1 million mail ballots, compared to about 397,000 for Republicans.
Overall, Democrats cast about 440,000 more votes for president than Republicans did in the June 2 contest, despite neither party having a competitive presidential primary.
That won’t necessarily translate into November’s general election, which will be a very different contest. The parties weren’t directly competing with each other this time.
But some Democrats took the turnout numbers as a positive — if tentative — signal of party energy leading into the final five months of the election, especially considering how many polling sites were closed in cities like Philadelphia.
“The big gap says something about Democratic enthusiasm, particularly that it almost equaled 2016, despite the fact that 2016 was vastly more competitive, with a multimillion dollar Senate [primary] campaign on top of a titanic struggle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia. “Can you take that and draw some grand conclusion? No. … But it doesn’t mean nothing.”
The differences were so large that even though almost one-in-five Democrats voted for Bernie Sanders (who had already dropped out), Joe Biden still racked up more primary votes from Democrats than President Donald Trump did from Republicans.
Party enthusiasm is one of many factors that could be crucial in a state decided by just 44,000 votes in 2016, or about 0.7% of the vote.
Republicans, however, will almost surely be more motivated to turn out when Trump’s reelection is on the line, and 2020 has been filled with unprecedented variables. General elections draw a wider swath of people — including third-party and independent voters, who make up 14% of Pennsylvania’s registered voters but are shut out of primaries.
Republicans and some nonpartisan analysts noted that primaries are rarely predictive.
“I would be very cautious to make any sort of conclusions about enthusiasm or likely turnout in November … especially given everything going on,” said Caitlin Jewitt, a Virginia Tech political scientist who has studied presidential primaries.
A new state law allowing anyone to vote by mail and coronavirus fears of voting in person led to a massive volume of mail ballots, and the long process of counting them left numerous races without a declared winner for days.
Turnout — and the stakes — will be far higher in November. Still, the June vote, now almost entirely counted more than two weeks later, provides some clues about the state’s first major foray into mail voting and the last batch of hard political information about a state where small margins could make a huge difference.
Mail voting: a chasm
Both parties made huge efforts to encourage voting by mail. With worries that coronavirus could disrupt voting in the fall, Democrats and Republicans alike saw the primary as a chance to get their supporters accustomed to a method that allows people to vote from home.
Democrats had far more success.
About two out of every three Democratic votes in the primary came by mail. In every single county, Democrats voted by mail at higher rates than Republicans did, according to Inquirer estimates based on unofficial results and mail ballot return data.
Put another way: Most Democrats voted by mail, while most Republicans voted in person.
One potential factor: Trump. Despite national and state Republican efforts to encourage mail voting, the president has disparaged the method (which he uses himself). It seems many of his supporters listened.
In Northampton County, for example, a swing county Trump won in 2016, Democrats cast 16,000 more mail ballots than Republicans did. Republicans voted more in person, but their 5,500 edge there wasn’t nearly enough to close the gap. (Democrats also have a sizable voter registration edge there).
“We’ve seen it in a couple of different races around the country where the Republican Party has not been as adept as Democrats for getting their ballots out for mail-in races,” said Mark Dion, a Republican consultant who has worked on statewide Pennsylvania campaigns. “There’s a blueprint there, and there’s time to implement that before November.”
The mail voting difference might not matter if Republicans vastly outnumber Democrats at November polling sites. But that didn’t happen in the primary.
And if the coronavirus disrupts in-person voting in November, or mail voting draws in people who might otherwise not participate, Democrats may have an initial advantage. Those who voted by mail in June could check a box to automatically receive a mail ballot in the fall.
A Trump drop-off
With the presidential primaries decided, it was obvious turnout would be down. But it didn’t fall equally.
The 440,000 vote turnout advantage for Democrats is a huge increase from 2016, when both parties had active primary contests and Democrats cast about 87,000 more votes than Republicans.
Nancy Hirschman, a politics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called the difference “significant” and a sign of Democratic motivation to beat Trump. “But in the general election, that could be an equal motivator to people who do support him to show up — so I think Republican turnout in the general could be a whole different story.”
And even though more Democrats voted in the 2016 primary, they narrowly lost the state in the general election.
“I’m just, in general, not a big proponent of extrapolating numbers from two uncontested primaries to the general election,” said Christopher Nicholas, a GOP consultant in Harrisburg.
Presidential turnout as a share of party registration was about equal this year: about 38% for Democrats and 34% for Republicans. (The state has far more registered Democrats than Republicans, accounting for Democrats’ higher vote totals).
Republicans have long argued that Trump has a unique pull on his supporters that will show in November. They also noted that they had few competitive down-ballot races to encourage voting.
“We had races for voters to come out and vote for,” said Rogette Harris, the Democratic chair in Dauphin County, where Democratic turnout for the presidential race was up 6% compared to 2016. The swing county, home to Harrisburg, had a competitive Democratic congressional primary.
Delaware County Republicans had a low-key congressional primary, but few other major races, said the local GOP chair, Tom McGarrigle.
McGarrigle said while he thinks Republican turnout will be stronger in November, it will take work.
“Democrats, up until the last month, they had a choice — Bernie was still in the race, so they actually had someone to vote for and Trump was our candidate,” McGarrigle said. “I don’t think people were as motivated as the Democrats were. We certainly need to get them motivated in November.”
The suburbs keep shifting
One of the recurring themes of the Trump presidency came up again in the primary: Suburbs are moving hard against the president.
In once Republican-leaning Chester County, almost 72,000 people voted in the Democratic presidential primary, a 20% increase from 2016. Republican turnout was down 43%, or 33,000 votes.
“We were very pleased with the turnout. I think it was a combination of voter enthusiasm as well as high participation in the vote by mail,” said Dick Bingham, the Democratic chairman in Chester County, where Democrats accounted for almost 75% of mail votes. “I hate to necessarily refer to the Trump effect, but it seems to be real.”
Delaware County saw a 46% drop in overall GOP turnout, and a small uptick for Democrats. In Bucks County, there was a 30% drop off for Republican presidential votes, compared to about a 1% fall for Democrats.
And while in recent elections these suburban shifts have been mirrored by a swing toward Republicans in small towns and rural areas, that wasn’t evident in the primary. Key counties that delivered huge numbers for Trump in 2016, such as Luzerne, Westmoreland, Northampton, and York, all saw turnout fall much further for Republicans than for Democrats.