Democrats’ key hurdle in conservative states are nonvoters, not Republicans

Will they show up on Nov. 6?
Will they show up on Nov. 6?
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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With less than 24 hours before of the election, US representative Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to become Texas’s junior US senator is still hustling to raise money, asking that supporters consider donating just $3 each. “In a close election that could come down to just a few thousand votes, this final push could make the difference,” pleads an email to supporters (and potential campaign contributors).

That’s on top of the $70 million he already raised.

O’Rourke needs the cash to make sure he doesn’t leave any voters on the table. His supporters have also been furiously reaching out to infrequent voters—by text, phone, even by leaving handwritten notes at their doors, offering to drive them to the polls. It’s an unprecedented push in Texas, where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994, and where over 65% of registered voters skipped the last midterm election.

Like O’Rourke, Democrats in other Republican strongholds are at a disadvantage politically, but not necessarily outnumbered. Many toss-up races where Democrats could stand a chance this year are in states with dismal turnout rates in recent election years. In the past, Democrats had all but written off those areas as hopeless, but this year, Donald Trump’s controversy-laden presidency has emboldened a slew of opposition candidates to reconsider their chances. Their odds are not great, but are also not mathematically impossible, if enough Democrat-leaning people cast their votes, polling and other data suggest.

Here’s a look at five states where a more engaged electorate could make a difference: Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Across these five states, there are four close US Senate races, a number of toss-up US House districts, and, in Florida and Georgia, close-matched gubernatorial elections.

Trump country

Out of those five states, only one, Nevada, went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and not by a lot. In Texas—the most lopsided of the five—Trump won by a margin of nine percentage points, narrower than other Republican candidates in the past, though still comfortable. Trump’s margins in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia were smaller, and potentially surmountable for Democrats.

A disengaged population

Another trend working against Democrats are turnout rates among eligible voters in these five states, which were far from stellar during the last mid-term elections. In fact, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona are among the 10 states in the country with the lowest turnout rates in 2016, and Georgia is not much farther up the list. Florida is the only one of the five that had a rate above the national average of 60% during the 2016 election.

Minority voters

All of the states have large minority populations, which generally vote at lower rates, and, according to a recent poll, are generally less interested in politics.

More in Common, an international nonprofit that seeks to reduce political polarization, conducted a survey (pdf) of over 8,000 voting-age Americans, and used the results to group voters into seven categories based on their self-reported values and attitudes:

  • progressive activists
  • traditional liberals
  • passive liberals
  • politically disengaged
  • moderate
  • traditional conservatives
  • devoted conservatives

The survey also tracked demographic data in an attempt to understand the demographic makeup of each of these categories. The results suggest that black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than the general US population to identify as either “passive liberal” and “politically disengaged”—both categories that are less likely to vote, make a political donation, or attend a political rally than other groups identified by the survey.

Black and Hispanic Americans are also much less likely to be devoted conservatives than the rest of the country, according to the survey. If they voted, they would more likely benefit Democrats, not Republicans. Hispanics in particular make up a large share of the population in four of the five states, and could have a major impact on the election.

Disengaged voters, geographically

These five states include some of the fastest-growing cities in the US, and all except Georgia are significantly above the national average when it comes to the share of urban vs. rural populations.

That’s both good and bad for Democratic candidates running in these traditional conservative states. Urban voters tend to be less conservative than the US national average—but also tend to be more politically disengaged.

Engaging the disengaged

Democrats are starting to see those disengaged voters as an opportunity, rather than a liability. If they show up to the polls in big numbers, they could help tip conservative districts.

The More in Common poll offers a hint on how they could be lured. Mosts respondents who fell in the middle of the ideological spectrum—those that are not hardcore liberal or conservative—say they are tired of polarization and want politicians to compromise, according to the survey. Democrats in several prominent races are running on that message. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Arizona, peppers her speeches with the world “bipartisan” and cites having Trump sign one of her bills as an accomplishment, The Atlantic reports. The race is going to be extremely tight: the latest polls show a virtual tie between Sinema and Republican opponent Martha McSally.

In neighboring Nevada, Democratic candidate Jacky Rosen, too, is running for her state’s US Senate seat by touting her bipartisan credentials. “I have been rated the fifth most bipartisan freshmen in the Congress,” she told Nevada Public Radio last month. Texas’s O’Rourke is pushing more progressive policies than Sinema or Rosen, but he too says that he will work with Republicans. Rosen is ahead by a bit, according to most polls, while O’Rourke is slightly behind.

He and other Democrats are also reaching out to voters who usually stay at home, including young voters and minorities. In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has built her strategy around recruiting those who haven’t consistently voted in the past; Andrew Gillum, the Democrat running for governor in Florida, is also betting on increasing turnout.

Most recent polls show Gillum ahead, and Abrams anywhere from 12 points behind to four points ahead.

Will it work?

Some believe neither of those approaches will work. Expecting to convince voters with talk of compromise is wishful thinking writes politics reporter Zack Beauchamp for Vox. Polarization is too entrenched, because political party affiliation is now embedded into people’s identities.

It’s also unclear whether efforts to turn out relatively disinterested voters will work. “If your electoral strategy is based on something that doesn’t normally happen, you’re probably in trouble,” says Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It’s conceivable that there could be a wave of young people or that Hispanics could turn out in much larger numbers, but you can lose a lot of money expecting stuff like that to happen.”

By tomorrow, pundits—and Democrats—will have a better idea of what does and doesn’t work to turn a red state blue.