The Houston Chronicle reports: “Voters lined up at polling places across Texas at dawn on Monday, the first day of early voting as an energized Democratic Party tries to take control of Congress, and as Republican voters respond to months of hype about a ‘blue wave.’ ” The prospect of a massive turnout for the midterms was evident from registration figures. “Ahead of the Nov. 6 election, voter registration in Texas spiked, reaching a record high of more than 15.7 million. From the primary until the final day of voter registration in October, roughly 400,000 people were added to the rolls, election records show.” Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats, but it’s clear that both sides are engaged. (“More than one million Democrats cast a ballot, the highest turnout in a midterm since 2002. Similarly, Republican voters cast 1.5 million ballots for governor, the most since at least 1970.”)
As stories on massive early voting from Texas, Georgia, Virginia and other states dominate election coverage, the result might be that even more people turn out early to vote. While it might have been the norm to feign lack of interest in the midterms or to evidence contempt for both sides, heavy early voting can reverse the social pressure. Democrats hope that this pressure applies to voters not normally engaged in midterm elections, especially younger voters.
Several points are worth emphasizing.
First, registered Republicans or those voting in heavily Republican locales aren’t all necessarily casting ballots for the Republican candidate. To be sure, Republicans will generally vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats, but we are arguably at a time when party identification is more fluid than it has been in decades. Some women in the suburbs who might have been Mitt Romney voters and might even have been willing to cast votes for Donald Trump in 2016 to “shake up the system” could now be among the most aggrieved voters, bent on putting a check on Trump and signaling a thumbs down on his misogyny. A farmer or businessman who thought Trump would turn out to be a garden-variety Republican might now be rethinking one-party government, especially if the trade war or a softening housing market hurts that voter’s bottom line.
Second, we simply will not know until Nov. 6 whether early voting is cannibalizing Election Day voting. Once people form the habit of voting early, they — and their friends and relatives — might be more inclined to do so in the future. There is both statistical and anecdotal evidence to show the increasing popularity of early voting. The final numbers almost certainly won’t be anything like a presidential-year turnout.
Third, part of the credit for midterm voting numbers should go to Trump — but his presence at multiple campaign rallies might not inure to the benefit of Republicans. “Texas Republican operatives are anxious that he could hurt local incumbents, particularly U.S. Rep. John Culberson and state Rep. Sarah Davis,” the Texas Tribune reported. “‘On average, Trump’s visit will benefit Republican candidates running statewide by helping to ramp up turnout by Republicans and non-Republicans who are Trump supporters,’ Rice University professor Mark Jones said.” Trump wants to make this all about him.
That’s Trump’s message: “A vote for Rep. [fill in the name] is a vote for me.” If a large percentage of voters want to contain Trump and halt plans to cut entitlements, repeal Obamacare and roll out more tax cuts (which they suspect might once more go to the rich), that’s not a very helpful message for Republicans struggling to differentiate themselves from Trump.
CNN likewise reports that “several Republican strategists expressed a palpable level of anxiety at what the President might say during his unscripted rally. Trump’s sharp rhetoric on immigration, two officials said, could awaken Hispanic voters or independents in key congressional races in the state. ‘We were hoping he would go to West Texas for this rally,’ a Republican strategist said.” That said, it’s a mistake to think voters are seeing hours upon hours of Trump. (“While the near-nightly Trump show is back, this time his rallies are no longer seen live on cable television. Even his beloved Fox News is regularly taking a pass. His devoted fans are still filling every arena to the brim, but White House aides said he has repeatedly expressed frustration that his speeches are not being televised.”)
One thing is for certain: After campaigning with him and promising to stick with him, House and Senate Republicans are reinforcing the perception that there is no difference between Trump and the GOP. Video of them standing side by side with Trump will for better or worse help define their careers going forward. That means voters in New Jersey (where Trump isn’t showing up) get the message loud and clear: If you don’t like Trump, don’t vote for the candidates with an “R” next to their name.