At first glance, the early-voting numbers in Maryland look ominous for incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan. Early voting closed yesterday, with 665,064 Marylanders casting their ballots early — and that total includes 426,196 registered Democrats and 156,201 registered Republicans. That comes out an early vote that is 64 percent Democrat, 23 percent Republican, and 13 percent other or unaffiliated.
But Democratic candidate Ben Jealous can’t quite break out the party hats. Maryland has always been a heavily Democratic state, and this partisan split in the early vote is . . . pretty much in line with the last midterm cycle. Democrats voting early in 2014 outnumbered Republicans, 189,175 to 87,035, with 28,328 unaffiliated voters also voting early. That added up to a split that was . . . 62 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican, and 10 percent unaffiliated. That year Hogan was outspent 5-to-1 . . . and Hogan won, 51 percent to Anthony Brown’s 47 percent.
In 2014, 23 percent of self-identified Democrats voted for Hogan. Brown simply could not generate excitement in the Democratic base, and heavily Democratic areas like Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City had low turnout.
Polling in this cycle indicates Hogan has won over even more Democrats. A Gonzalez poll from early October found Hogan “capturing a third of the registered Democrats in the state, 1-in-5 black voters, racking up huge margins in the Baltimore suburbs, the eastern, western, and southern parts of the Old Line State, and running dead even in traditionally liberal Montgomery County. . . . Since his surprisingly imposing victory in the June Democratic primary, first-time candidate Ben Jealous’ efforts to create electoral enthusiasm beyond his progressive base have produced bupkis.” [Emphasis mine.]
A lot of election analysts in the media are interpreting the high early vote totals in many states as a sign that this year’s turnout will be really big by historical measures. But this year’s increase continues a steady pattern going back to at least 2004. Lots of Americans hate standing on line, and after encountering long lines at polls in those high-turnout presidential elections, more and more people are choosing the early voting option. Campaigns now put more effort into getting their supporters to vote early. Also, over time, more voters became required to vote by mail instead of at polling places on Election Day – Oregon in 1998, Washington in 2011, and Colorado in 2013.
Will overall national turnout be higher than in 2014? Probably, because turnout four years ago was really low by historical standards. But the early vote was just over 21 million in 2014 (the second-highest after 2008), and the percentage of the vote cast early, absentee, or by mail was around 40 percent, the highest ever to that point. In other words, four years ago an analyst accurately could say “the early vote is the highest ever in a midterm election!” and yet we still ended up with low turnout overall.