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After Struggling To Turn Out Voters, Democrats Hope 2018 Will Be Different


Traditionally, Labor Day kicks off the fall campaign season. And after several cycles of struggling to turn out voters, Democrats are hoping this year will be different. In fact, they've been watching the past few months of special election and primary races, and they think they have a shot at a wave election, capturing the House and maybe even the Senate.

Here with a reality check on all that is NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So what's the latest sign you've seen that Democrats are in a strong position this fall?

TAYLOR: So we're almost through primary season. Only a handful of states are left to vote in September. And so we have concrete voting data in states to look at. I talked with Republican pollster John Couvillon, who has been tracking a lot of this data. He looked at 35 states, and he found, on average, Democratic turnout up 78 percent since four years ago, compared to Republican turnout up only 23 percent. So this shows him, a Republican, that these are verifiable numbers that Democrats are coming out to the polls, and they're coming out big.

CORNISH: How does all this compare to previous years? You've mentioned 2014, but give us a little more context.

TAYLOR: So the last time Democrats took back the House was in 2006. And the last time that happened, Democrats cast about 54 percent of primary ballots in those same 35 states. And this year, they've cast 53 percent. So we saw a definite uptick. Compare that with really good Republican years, which was 2010 when Republicans took back the House, and 2014 when they kept the House, and 56 percent of primary ballots went for Republicans. So you can sort of see that enthusiasm edge, giving a hint as to what might come in the fall.

CORNISH: But there's still a lot of time, right? Election Day is, you know, some-two months away. What other indicators do you have about where the parties stand going into the final stretch?

TAYLOR: Well, some of these states that have had a big increase in turnout are places like Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, Iowa. And these are where a lot of these battleground House districts are concentrated - California as well. So those are good signs for Democrats. Other signs that we have are that Democrats are outraising Republican counterparts on both the House and on the Senate level.

And then another sort of verifiable factor that we have are these special elections. Republicans held on to all but one of them. But they saw a movement toward Democrats in these really, really red places, where they really shouldn't even be competitive, by an average of 10 points. That was an analysis that we here at NPR did last month. And if these House races move that much toward Democrats, they would be on track to pick up 63 seats, which is far more than the 23 they need to flip the House.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, I want to dig in on the Senate a little bit more. What story do these turnout numbers tell us about who could control that chamber next year?

TAYLOR: Republicans' firewall is in the Senate. Democrats are defending incumbents in 10 states that President Trump carried in 2016. And there are some states where there was a bigger increase in Republican turnout than Democratic turnout, like places like West Virginia, where Democrat Joe Manchin is one of the most endangered senators in the country. Same with North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp.

And then there are races that I think are just going to be a slog. So Florida is sort of the perennial swing state. They had their primary last week. Both sides saw an uptick in turnout. Democrats slightly edged out Republicans, but there's going to be a really big Senate race there with incumbent Bill Nelson being challenged by the Republican governor Rick Scott, and a really tough gubernatorial race there, too.

CORNISH: In the meantime, President Trump has vowed to be out on the campaign trail - right? - maybe going out a couple times a week. Where he goes, does he make a difference?

TAYLOR: In the Senate and places that he won big, he really can be a help. But if you're an incumbent sitting in suburban Houston or Dallas or Orange County, Calif., President Trump is going to be more of a hindrance than a help.

CORNISH: That's NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor. Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.