Decision 2020: Alaska and Wisconsin contests


Even though Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary contest on April 8, only 29 states have completed their Presidential contests, while of Congressional/state contests for this election cycle, only 7 states have voted. So where do we currently stand with the 2020 election cycle ?

“Coronavirus contests”

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic has reached a critical mass in America in mid March, numerous states have moved their primary dates back and/or instituted 100% vote by mail (Louisiana’s primary was moved back from April 4 to July 11). And what has become apparent is that contests utilizing any form of in person voting have seen substantially lower turnout. We don’t yet have enough data to assess turnout impacts for 100% mail in voting, although one 100% vote by mail contest saw a substantial increase in turnout.

To illustrate, five states have held contests since the middle of March. Arizona, Florida and Illinois’ contests were held last month, and in the last week, Alaska and Wisconsin voted. Alaska’s contest was delayed until April 11 and was conducted entirely by mail. Under this configuration, turnout was double the turnout for either 2016 or 2008. Wisconsin, on the other hand, still utilized in person voting (even though absentee voting was encouraged), and saw some decline in its turnout – its 1.55M turnout last night was below the 2016 turnout of 2.1M.

Given that the Democratic contest has technically ended, Democratic voters are steadily coalescing behind Joe Biden. Even though Bernie Sanders won both the Alaska and Wisconsin contests in 2016, Alaska (which was more of a caucus setting) supported Biden 55-45%, while Wisconsin supported Biden by a wider 63-32% margin.

Incidentally, Democratic primary contests have given the party a subsidiary benefit: elevated Democratic turnout which gives its statewide candidates a more favorable electoral climate. To illustrate, in Wisconsin, Supreme Court races have for both 2016 and 2020 been on the same ballot as the Presidential primary. In 2016, 52% of the primary vote was cast on the Republican side, and a “Republican” (in Wisconsin, Supreme Court races are technically nonpartisan) candidate also received 52% on Election Day. This time around, however, 60% of the vote was cast in the Democratic primary, and a “Democratic” Supreme Court candidate received 55% of the vote, enabling Democrats to narrow the Republican tilt of that judicial body.

Primary turnout monitoring

JMC has always believed that the political mood of the country can be determined by other data points in addition to polling, such as changes in party registration and partisan primary turnout – the latter was a particularly useful barometer in accurately forecasting the 2018 Democratic wave, which JMC detected as far back as December 2017.

29 states have held Presidential contests so far, and below are the turnout numbers for 2008, 2016, and 2020 (in 2008 and 2016, both major parties didn’t have an incumbent running) before the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March (and, in JMC’s opinion, distorted the primary turnouts in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois):




What’s most notable here is not just the fact that Democratic turnout was noticeably higher than 2008 (when the Obama/Clinton contest sparked massive Democratic primary turnout), but with Donald Trump only having nominal opposition within his own party, Republican turnout has been respectable as well – almost identical to the 2008 numbers. This shows that he still enjoys strong enthusiasm from his own party’s voters.

While we cannot yet provide a complete assessment of turnout changes since the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March (as only five states have held contests, and two of those three had mail in voting well underway before the pandemic struck), with the very limited data we have, it’s clear turnout has been negatively impacted across the board:




Looking ahead

The remainder of April will be relatively quiet: the results of the Wyoming Democratic caucus will be released this Friday, and that caucus was conducted entirely by mail in balloting. Similarly, Ohio’s March primary has been rescheduled to April 28, with Presidential as well as Congressional races on the ballot – this one will also be 100% vote by mail.

In May, there will only be four Presidential contests (Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon), and all but Nebraska are conducting these by mail only. Idaho (which will be conducted entirely by mail) will also be holding its Congressional primary contests, and there are special Congressional elections in California and Wisconsin.