Politics and Public Opinion

Looking at PA-12: Was Turnout the Key?

Was Democrat Mark Critz’s larger-than-expected victory due to high turnout among Dems? Democrats had the Sestak-Specter race and a competitive gubernatorial race to excite their voters; Republican statewide primaries were staid affairs whose outcomes were not in doubt. Is this the explanation?

The evidence says not. I looked at the primary results for every county in PA-12 and totaled up the Democrat and Republican total votes cast for governor or senator. I then took the highest turnout race in each county and compared them to the final pre-primary registration numbers by party. (In two counties, the election bureau gave the total number of votes cast by party, which invariably is higher than the total number of votes cast in any single race because of ballot spoilage and voter drop off. I used these totals in those instances.) In every county but one (Greene), the Republicans voted at a higher percentage than did the Democrats.

This result is in line with pre-election surveys that showed Republicans were more excited about the race than were Democrats, and comport with the statewide primary figures that also show Republicans voted at higher rates than did Democrats in Tuesday’s primaries.

Voting was much higher in most counties containing parts of PA-12 than statewide, suggesting that both parties’ campaigns motivated their base voters to come to the polls.

The parties’ efforts did not seem to motivate many registered Independents to vote, though. According to the Cook Report, only 6,000 of the 134,000 votes cast were from Independents, a much lower percentage of the vote than their share of registered voters. Under Pennsylvania law those voters cannot cast ballots in either party’s primary, but they could vote in the PA-12 special election. Those voters might be habitually unused to voting in primaries, and hence did not turn out, but they will know they are able to vote in general elections. If those largely Independent voters break differently than did the partisan part of the electorate this week, the PA-12 result in November could be quite different than it was Tuesday night.

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