Decision 2019 – Day 1 of runoff early voting (Louisiana Democrats channel Bill Clinton)

After one term in office as Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was defeated when he ran for re-election in 1980. Experts attributed his upset loss to “three Cs” – (1) car tags (Governor Clinton substantially increased the license plate fees in his first term), (2) Cubans (after Fidel Castro allowed over 100,000 Cubans to emigrate to the United States in 1980 via boat, former President Jimmy Carter sent 19,000 of them to Arkansas, where they later rioted), and (3) Clinton (i.e., up to that point, Hillary referred to herself by her maiden name, rather than as “Hillary Clinton”). As Bill began his (eventually successful) 1982 comeback, his first television ad was a confessional to Arkansas voters about mistakes he made in his first term, and in making his confession, he also noted that “my daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing.”

And that is the best way to describe yesterday’s beginning of runoff early voting in Louisiana. For whatever the true causes were of weak Democratic early voting turnout in the primary (overconfidence about Governor Edwards’ winning in the first primary, lack of motivation from partisan Democrats to vote in the primary, or some other reason), that mistake was not repeated yesterday. In fact, Democrats had a great first day.

Record early voting turnout

In recent election cycles, examining the first day early voting numbers has been a real eye opener on multiple occasions: (1) the 2016 Presidential election (where an record 531,555 ultimately early voted), (2) the 2018 “low wattage” (for Louisiana) midterm elections (315,773 early voted), (3) the primary for this year’s statewide elections (386,129 early voted). As of last night, 89,623 voted early – the highest first day early voting turnout EVER (the previous record was the 87,066 who voted on the first day for President in 2016). This 89,623 figure was 16% higher than it was for the primary and 112% higher than it was for the 2015 runoff.

Furthermore, Democrats were the clear beneficiary. While blacks were 25% of the early vote after the first day of primary early voting, they were 31% as of last night. Not only was the 6% increase impressive, but a 31% black electorate after the first day is not a common occurrence: in 17 statewide election cycles from 2008 to 2019, only 5 times have blacks represented that high of a percentage of the early vote. Curiously, Republican turnout remained relatively high as well: 39% of those who early voted were Republican (compared to 42% in the primary).

Louisianians are gradually becoming more comfortable with the idea of voting before Election Day: the first Presidential election where early voting was available was in 2008, and at that time, 15%/292,213 early voted – a record at that time. That record was topped again in 2012 (18%/355,676 early voted), then again in 2016 (26%/531,555 early voted), and in the 2019 primary (28%/386,129 early voted) . And since the 2015 statewide primary, the “new normal” has consistently been above 20% voting early – an average of 24% have early voted in statewide elections between October 2015 and October 2019.

So with turnout higher than in the primary and more than double the 2015 numbers, is this a harbinger of high November 16 turnout ? Given what happened in the primary (where the high initial early voting turnout caused turnout to increase from 39% in 2015 to 46%), JMC now believes this is the case, because the “missing ingredient” in the primary was lower black enthusiasm, which clearly has changed, and that change has – for now – provided an electoral lift for Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards.

A surge of black Democratic enthusiasm

An ongoing (and elastic) variable when assessing the impact of early voting on the composition of the primary/runoff electorate is the racial and partisan composition of the electorate, since Louisiana has party registration and tracks a person’s race on his/her voter registration card. In the 2019 primary, first day early voting was 77,059, with a racial composition of 72-25% white/black and 44-42% Democrat/Republican. As of last night, the 89,623 who early voted were 66-31% white/black and 45-39% Democrat/Republican. In other words, an electorate that is more Democratic friendly than in the primary. 

But how much more Democratic friendly ? Because while the black share of the electorate increased 6% relative to the primary, the Republican share only decreased 3%. The remainder of the decrease came from lower turnout (percentage-wise) from white Democrats and white Independents. And since Governor Edwards has been running strongly among white Democrats (60-37% in the last poll JMC conducted and publicly released) and relatively well among white Independents (he trails 38-56% in the last poll), the incremental benefit to his campaign isn’t as much as it would seem, because the Republican percentage of the electorate remained relatively high, and among this group, Governor Edwards trails 17-79%.

What all of this means in practical terms is that because of the decrease in white Democrats/white Independents and the relatively high Republican early vote, an Edwards poll lead of 50-47% over Rispone would become 49-47% Edwards/Rispone if the poll results were recalculated to reflect the first day early vote.

It will be interesting to see whether this high initial black early vote sustains itself throughout the week; in JMC’s experience, Democratic early voting tends to be heaviest on Saturdays than on weekdays.

JMC’s projections of early voting volume, overall turnout

Projecting turnout is a constantly moving target throughout early voting week, but since early voting has been in existence in Louisiana for more than a decade, JMC has established (and continuously refined) benchmarks that can be used to project early voting and/or final turnout, even considering that his predictive model got slightly more complex in 2017 with mail in ballots’ starting to be automatically being mailed out to those 65 years old or over.

So when (1) you consider the “spike” in mail in ballots that artificially inflates the numbers a bit, and (2) you look at what happened in the primary and realized that the heavy first day early vote WAS a harbinger of higher turnout (even with some “front loading” of the numbers), JMC is of the initial opinion that there will be a combination both of “front loading” AND of higher turnout like there was in the primary. In practical terms, this means that (remember – these are first day projections that WILL change as additional data comes in):

  • Early voting as a percentage of the final vote will likely go from 28 to 30% of the total;
  • Projected early/absentee vote: 387K
  • Projected turnout volume: 1292K
  • Projected turnout percentage: 43%

In Conclusion

Why does early voting matter? When the Legislature essentially established “no fault” early voting more than a decade ago, you now have a noticeable constituency of people who prefer the convenience of early voting, and this constituency has for nine times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, October 2017 primary, November 2017 runoff, November 2018 primary, December 2018 runoff, and October 2019 primary) exceeded 20%. A politician would be foolish to ignore this many “up front” voters, especially in a closely contested race. Also, too, early voting numbers are the first ones that are typically reported after polls have closed at 8 PM.