Tuesday’s presidential primary saw unprecedented Democratic turnout in Maine, but it’s too soon to tell what that might mean in November.

Andrew Rudalevige, chairman of the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, said the numbers were good news for Democrats who are “driven by desire to find someone who can defeat (President) Trump.”

But he also said he’s seen no sign that Republicans are any less motivated to keep the president in office for another four years.

“His camp did bring people out of the woodwork four years ago, people town clerks hadn’t seen in years,” Rudalevige said. “And his supporters are still emotionally attached.”

High turnout in Maine mirrored enthusiasm in other Super Tuesday states. Of the 14 states that voted, all but Oklahoma saw more voters turn out than in their 2016 primaries.

In Virginia, which was carried by former Vice President Joe Biden, turnout grew from nearly 783,000 to more than 1.3 million, or 66 percent.

In North Carolina, which Biden also won, turnout was 18 percent higher than four years ago.

Turnout in Colorado, where Vermont Sen Bernie Sanders won, was near 45 percent, buoyed in part by a new system where all registered voters there were sent an absentee ballot.

In Maine, where Biden narrowly defeated Sanders, slightly more than 200,000 registered Democrats voted Tuesday, or about 58 percent of all registered Democrats as of last November.

That total was more than four times the number of Democrats who participated in 2016, although Maine held caucuses and not a primary that year. Caucuses always draw far fewer voters. Total turnout in Maine this year was about 37 percent of registered voters.

“Maine certainly looks comparable to other states, but I think in general, the Super Tuesday primaries drove a lot of interest,” said University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, a national elections expert who runs the voter data site United States Elections Project.

Although not an apples-to-apples comparison, the two most recent primaries in Maine where Democrats voted in high numbers were in June 2010 and June 2018, when they chose nominees for governor. In 2010, 122,936 Democrats voted. In 2018, 132,250 cast ballots.

The last previous presidential primary in Maine was in 2000, when 64,279 Democrats (23 percent) and 96,624 Republicans (38 percent) voted, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Those numbers were dwarfed this year.

“The only thing that really made me say ‘wow’ was the degree of turnout,” said University of Southern Maine political scientist Ronald Schmidt Jr.

As for whether that enthusiasm will last until November, Schmidt said a lot can happen between now and then.

“Some voters could get alienated from the process,” he said, referring to supporters of either Sanders or Biden who might be upset if the other wins the nomination. “But I think there is a combination of desire to oust Trump and anxiety over major issues like health care that could keep Democratic voters motivated.”

Maine Democrats, in addition to wanting to defeat Trump, also have their sights on unseating U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, which would potentially help shift the Senate back to Democratic control. Kathleen Marra, the state party chairwoman, said last week that if that happens Mainers could be positioned to have an outsized influence on the national political landscape.

Democrats will vote in a June primary between four candidates to take on Collins: Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, progressive activist and lobbyist Betsy Sweet, former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse and defense attorney Bre Kidman. Gideon is widely viewed as the front-runner and two recent public polls show her running even or slightly ahead of Collins.

Comparing voter turnout in primaries with turnout in general elections is always challenging because the variables change.

Sometimes candidate races are heavily contested; other times candidates are unopposed. The Democratic presidential primary last week generated a lot of interest, but the dynamics also changed significantly at the last minute with the dropout of two major candidates. And on the Republican side, Trump was unopposed in Maine, which likely affected turnout within that party. The Secretary of State’s Office did not have any official numbers for Republican turnout as of Friday.

The other factor that might have driven turnout higher last week was Question 1, which asked voters to keep or reject a law that imposed vaccine requirements on children attending public schools. Voters overwhelmingly voted to keep the law and high Democratic turnout certainly contributed to that wide gap.

The high turnout in Maine and elsewhere last week continues an upward trend. National turnout in 2018 was the highest for a midterm election since 1914, according to McDonald, the national expert, and Democrats have been driving that.

Historically, the party that’s not in power makes gains in off-year or midterm elections. Democrats picked up a total of 41 U.S. House seats in 2018 to retake control two years after Trump was elected.

A similar shift happened for Republicans in 2010, when they gained 63 seats and took back the House, and also gained six seats to narrow the Democrats’ advantage in the Senate.

Some Republicans have been touting their high numbers this year, especially since their candidate, President Trump, is running unopposed in most states. In both Vermont and Minnesota, Trump got more votes than any incumbent in the last four decades. In New Hampshire, Trump got nearly 130,000 votes and his campaign has touted that number as twice what former President Obama received there during his re-election campaign in 2012.

Rudalevige said now that the Democratic primary is a two-person race between Biden and Sanders, he expects the next few state contests to feature high turnout as well. On Tuesday, six more states, including Michigan and Missouri, will hold their primaries. A week after that, voters in the delegate-heavy states of Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Illinois go to the polls.

“Part of the energy will depend on how close it is,” he said.

McDonald has predicted that turnout in November could reach 65 or 66 percent, which would be the highest for a general election since 1908.

In Maine, overall turnout in general elections has been steady over the last decade or more. In the last three presidential election years, turnout has ranged from 73-75 percent and in the off years, when Mainers vote for governor, turnout has been in the 59-62 percent range.

Similarly, the number of voters registered as Democrats, Republicans or unenrolled hasn’t changed much in that time. The 2018 general election featured 33 percent Democrats, 27 percent Republicans and 35 percent unenrolled. Back in 2008, the percentages for the two major parties were nearly identical.

The unknown in most general elections, Rudalevige said, is how many first-time or irregular voters turn out.

“Bernie has been selling a movement that increases the voting pool. We did see that with Obama (in 2008) but I’m not sure that’s been as true with Sanders,” he said.

Democrats may also have to address friction between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, represented by Sanders and Biden, respectively. Republicans have dealt with that, too, including in 2016, but Trump consolidated support in a way few could have foreseen.


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