A perceptive reader chastises me for arguing that a challenger might win in a low-turnout election—he points out that low-turnout elections historically favor incumbents.
That is a correct assessment in most cases. Low turnout often means satisfaction with the status quo, no big issue to motivate voters to go to the polls. You only have to look at Knoxville City Council elections for an example.
Without a presidential election on the ballot or an electorate upset about a tax increase—or a new wheel tax—it is often hard to motivate voters to go to the polls. It helps if there are a lot of competitive races on the ballot. But that’s happening less often now with term limits. Candidates tend to wait for an open seat.
A challenger has to have an issue that motivates voters to be dissatisfied with the incumbent.
But there is another axiom among us political junkies. It isn’t so much the turnout on election day that determines the winner—it’s who votes.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had polls showing that he had a comfortable lead in his race against David Brat. How did he lose? How could his pollsters be off so badly?
I think the pollsters were correct. And if you got the majority of voters in Cantor’s district to go and vote, he would have won handily. But most voters in that district stayed home. The ones who did vote, who were motivated to vote, were angry at Washington and they went to the polls to punish the only guy available—the House Majority Leader.
So, in special cases, a low-turnout election can help a challenger if the majority of voters are satisfied with the status quo and do not bother to vote—but the challenger has to be able to motivate a smaller, more energetic group of voters to go to the polls. But motivating your voters while most voters are apathetic is very hard to do.
That’s why elections like Cantor’s are called upsets.
In Knox County’s presidential preference primary in 2008, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the ballot, 39,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. Since the Republicans were choosing between John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney in that primary, I think it is fair to say that the voters in the Democratic primary were indeed Democrats and independents.
The turnout for the Republican county primary in May was less than 30,000. The number of hardcore voters, the “super voters” participating in every election, is about 25,000.
So if all the Democrats in Knox County who came out to vote in the presidential primary came to the polls in local elections, the Democrats could take over Knox County. Assuming they had the candidates.
I would note that Knoxville has a Democrat as mayor. The Democrats had the candidate and they voted. And they won.
In the August Republican primary, County Commissioner Richard Briggs is challenging state Sen. Stacey Campfield. Should Briggs win I think it is unlikely that Democrat Cheri Siler has much of a chance in the general election. Should Campfield win narrowly, there might be a number of Briggs voters (the anti-Campfield voters) who might join with Democrats and give Siler a shot.
Twenty percent of the district overlaps Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who has a general election opponent, and that might help increase Democratic turnout at those precincts. The Democrats are also mobilizing to defeat Amendment One, the abortion amendment, and that issue might bring more of them to the polls.
Bill Owen was the only Democrat elected to the state Senate from Knox County in 50 years, but he left office over 20 years ago. The number of Democrats in the state Senate has dwindled to seven. A Democratic pickup in Knox County would be as big a shocker locally as Cantor’s defeat up in Virginia.
But it isn’t likely to happen for the simple reason that what matters on election day is who votes. And when it comes to local elections, many Democrats don’t.