Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Early gauge of 2018 turnout shows good signs for Democrats

February 4, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Democrats are just about as likely as Republicans to say they plan to vote in this year’s congressional elections, a break from the two previous midterm elections, in which Republicans were significantly more inclined to vote, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in January.

Democratic congressional leaders hope anti-Trump sentiment can boost the party to regain control of the House and possibly the U.S. Senate, and the poll finds many fellow partisans feel a similar urgency. Just over half of Democratic-leaning registered voters, 51 percent, say it is “more important to vote” this year than in previous elections, compared with 34 percent of Republican-leaning voters who say the same.

In the past two midterm years, Republicans parlayed heightened conservative enthusiasm and disapproval of President Barack Obama into consecutive victories and control of the House and Senate. Post-ABC polls in 2014 found that, on average, Republican-leaning voters were 10 points more likely to say they were “absolutely certain to vote” than were voters who leaned toward the Democratic Party. In 2010, Republicans held a 12-point advantage on this question.

Read full poll results | How the poll was conducted ]

But turnout appears to be shaping up differently this year, with President Trump in the White House and most Americans disapproving of his performance. Sixty-five percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters say they are certain to vote, compared with 63 percent of Republican-leaning voters. Among Republicans, motivation to vote appears to be down from the past two cycles, while Democrats have changed less, although this may reflect the fact that the surveys in previous years were conducted later in those election years.

Turnout in midterm elections overall is far lower than turnout in presidential-election years, with fewer than 4 in 10 eligible voters casting ballots in 2014. Enthusiasm to vote this year ranges sharply within each party. The Post-ABC poll finds 54 percent of Americans who say that at the least they will “probably vote” also say it is more important to vote in 2018 than in previous midterm elections, while 44 percent say it is about as important as in the past and only 1 percent say it is less important.

Within the GOP, Trump’s most devoted supporters are also most committed to turning out, with 74 percent of Republican-leaning voters who “strongly approve” of his job performance saying they are certain to turn out. But among the more than 4 in 10 Republican-leaning voters who approve “somewhat” of Trump or disapprove, fewer than half say they are certain to vote (48 percent).

Two Democratic-leaning groups that have turned out at lower rates in past years also express tepid interest in voting this year. Fewer than half of registered voters ages 18-39, 46 percent, say they are certain to vote, compared with 68 percent of voters ages 40-64 and 77 percent of seniors. And nonwhite voters are nine points less likely than white to say they plan to vote (56 percent to 65 percent).

Low turnout among either group could weaken Democrats’ chances this fall, as younger voters favor Democrats by a 20-point margin when asked which party’s candidate they support, while nonwhites favor Democrats by a 50-point margin.

The Post-ABC poll found Democrats holding a 12-point advantage over Republicans when registered voters were asked which party’s candidates they will support in their congressional districts, the so-called “generic ballot” question that has been correlated with the number of seats parties win. Democrats’ advantage has been somewhat smaller in other polls in January, standing at eight points in an average of recent national polls analyzed by The Post. Election analysts forecast that Democrats need a six-to-eight-point advantage in generic polls to win in a majority of House districts.

New breakdowns from the poll show that Democrats hold a 37-point advantage among voters in congressional districts classified as “solid” for Democrats by the Cook Political report, with 64 percent supporting Democrats and 27 percent backing Republicans. In solid Republican districts, Republicans hold a narrower, nine-point, advantage — 49 percent to 40 percent.

The race is tight in districts that are more competitive, with 45 percent of registered voters supporting Democrats and 42 percent backing Republicans. Among 86 districts classified as “likely” for either party, “leaning” one way or “toss-up,” 62 are held by Republicans. If each party wins all of its safe seats, Democrats need to win a majority of all competitive seats to take control of the House.

Twice as many Americans say they prefer to elect representatives to Congress who have experience in Congress over newcomers to politics, 58 percent to 29 percent. More than three-quarters of self-identified Democrats say they prefer experienced candidates. Just over half of independents and fewer than half of Republicans say they prefer experience, while more than one-third of both groups say they want people who are new to politics. The partisan split on this question mirrors the 2016 campaign, when Democrat Hillary Clinton contrasted her resume of working in government with the resume of Trump, who most Americans said was not qualified for office.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Jan. 15-18 among a random sample of 1,005 adults reached on cellphones and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, and four percentage points among the sample of 846 registered voters.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


Scott Clement is the polling director for The Washington Post, conducting national and local polls about politics, elections and social issues. He began his career with the ABC News Polling Unit and came to The Post in 2011 after conducting surveys with the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project.

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