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Ohio's Early Voting Turnout Doesn't Necessarily Predict 'Blue Wave'

The early voting center at the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Voters arrive to vote early at the Franklin County Board of Elections, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.

More Ohioans requested early absentee ballots for this midterm election than in 2014. But Ohio is behind other states that are seeing record early turnout levels.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether that shows a “red tide” is building again in Ohio, or whether the state will be part of the nationally-predicted “blue wave.”

While Ohio is a purple state for presidential elections, it’s been reliably red in midterms since 1990, with only one Democratic governor elected for a single four-year term in 2006. More than 1.2 million Ohioans requested absentee ballots, as of October 31, though nearly a half a million haven’t mailed in or dropped off those completed ballots.

Knowing how those people will vote is a big deal to the major political parties.

“They raise much more money these days than they used to and they've gotten smarter about how they spend those resources and data is a big part of that,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a data provider to Democratic campaigns and causes.

Bonier has been pulling data from county boards of elections around the country. For Ohio, his numbers show more Republican-affiliated voters have asked for absentee ballots than those listed as Democrats.

The Secretary of State’s office shows there are 30 percent more Republican-affiliated voters than Democrats in Ohio. Most Ohio voters are considered unaffiliated with either party, however, because they haven’t voted in a recent primary.

Of course, these breakdowns don’t show who those Ohioans actually have voted or will vote for. Bonier said a voter’s party affiliation might predict their vote, but not always.

“And that's why in our analysis we actually have a not insignificant group of voters who are in the middle, I think, in Ohio,” he says. “Thus far, we have over 80,000 people who have cast a ballot who, based on the data we have, it's not clear which way they would lean even just in their generic partisan I.D.”

The parties are still working internally to see which voters they can lock down, categorizing those who’ve requested early ballots as likely or unlikely to vote for their candidates. But Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia’s forecasting newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball said it seems both Republicans and Democrats are tamping down their expectations of turnout, which is making things harder to predict.

“I think Ohio is also a state where you've got a lot of voters who may be in transition,” Kondik says. “That's true across the country and in some of these typically Republican suburban areas moving Democratic, and some of the more kind of small town traditionally Democratic areas that are moving the other way toward Republicans.”

And which party wins the top of the ticket is often critical. Elections expert Mike Dawson said it’s become clear in the last few election cycles that Ohio voters don’t often split their tickets.

“If the governor is a Democrat, Democrats get elected. And if the governor is a Republican, Republicans get elected down the ticket,” Dawson says. “I think it’s 33 out of 36 races since 1982, whoever’s won the governor’s office has won the rest of the statewide offices.”

Dawson said when he looks at the early turnout numbers compared to historical data, he thinks there will be more Democratic votes than in a typical midterm election, when Democratic turnout is lower than in presidential years. But he doesn’t see a blue wave across the state.

“But I think what you’re likely to see is some blue tornadoes touch down in Ohio House districts, Statehouse districts, where you’re going to see suburban districts in particular that have been reliably Republican are probably either going to go Democrat or be very, very close,” Dawson said.

Bonier says he’s going to be looking at demographic data he thinks will be key to predicting final turnout.

“What does African-American turnout look like? Is youth turnout going to continue to increase and become a larger share of the electorate than it was in 2014?” he asks. “Are there new voters coming out to vote who perhaps are people we weren't expecting to come out and which where they leaning?”

Younger voters have told pollsters they’ll turn out big this year, but historically that hasn’t been the case in Ohio. Just under 4 in 10 voters between 18-24 turned out in the presidential election two years ago.

Since 2000, the average midterm turnout for that group is under 20 percent – with just over 12 percent of those young voters casting ballots in 2014.