November 2014 could be a real downer for California when it comes to voter turnout. The June primary turnout was stunningly — unprecedentedly — bad, as only 23 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. This embarrassing record justifiably gets me thinking about whether the upcoming general election will sink to a record low as well.
Eyeballing the chart which shows turnout over time, we can see that there is a relationship between the level of turnout in California’s gubernatorial primary and general elections. In fact, the correlation coefficient is a robust 0.83, suggesting that 83 percent of the reason why turnout was what it was in those November elections is a product of turnout in those primaries.
So, yeah, if history is a guide, November turnout will hit a record nadir.
Going back to 1922, the average turnout had been 53 percent for gubernatorial primaries. However, the average dropped to 39 percent in recent times (post the Prop 13 anomaly of 1978). Similarly, the all-time average turnout for California’s non-presidential general elections is 68 percent, but has dropped to 59 percent from 1982 onward. We’re clearly in a low turnout era.
But — without getting into exotic forecasting models — let’s try to predict how low California will go this year.
If we use the last four primary elections in which turnout has been in the 30 percent range (’94, ’02, ’04 and ’06) we find the average increase from the primary to the general is 21 percent. That would put the state’s November 2014 turnout at a terrible 44 percent. Another way to make the prediction is to use the percentage increase between those four primaries and their generals. That comes out to 160 percent and if we apply that to this June’s turnout we get an even more dismal 37 percent November turnout.
Either way you slice it, voter participation in the upcoming election ain’t looking good.
This is welcome news for Republicans. Their voters are more reliable because they are older (although their age is a serious long-term concern for the GOP, the statewide runoff is a near-term issue). Republicans can be counted on to show up in even low turnout elections. Therefore the Democrats’ numerical advantage lessens in those scenarios.
When nearly everyone votes (think November 2012), 15 percent more Democrats than Republicans will cast ballots. That’s insurmountable for any non-incumbent Republican running against a scandal-free Democrat. But in June’s low turnout election, that advantage was cut nearly in half to about 8 percent. If November’s turnout is only 37 percent, then the margin will roughly be +9 percent Democrat. Even on the high end of the range (44 percent), Democrats will out-number Republicans by only about 10 percent.
Although being out-gunned by 10 percent is not a favorable position for Republicans, it gives a likeable, well-funded, moderate GOP candidate a chance. Kevin Faulconer fit this description in his race for Mayor of San Diego. Our research for the Faulconer campaign showed how critical it was for him to convey his personal brand to persuadable voters. Faulconer and his campaign team did so brilliantly, repeatedly delivering the message that he is “not your typical Republican” right through Election Day. Despite going up against a likable Democrat in an election where Democrats out-numbered Republicans by 7 percent, Faulconer prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.
This same description tends to fit Neel Kashkari, but he has one big problem – Governor Jerry Brown. Brown is also likeable and moderate. He won’t lack for funds and, oh, by the way, is the incumbent. Although record low turnout will give Kashkari a better chance, he’ll need Brown to stumble badly.