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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

High Suburban Turnout Key to Powering Dem Wins

For a fresh take on the U.S. politics and where it appears to be heading, read “High suburban turnout may be the new norm: We took a detailed look at who turned out to vote in five states in 2023” by 538’s Tia Yang, Mary Radcliffe, and Holly Fuong at abcnews.go.com. As the authors write:

538 analyzed turnout patterns in five states with high-profile elections in 2023, looking at both trends over time and differences between counties with different demographic compositions to see where turnout was highest. (You can download the data we used in this analysis on our GitHub page.) Overall, off-year turnout in these states was at or near its highest level in more than a decade, suggesting that we are still in the high-turnout environment that has characterized U.S. elections since 2016. We also found that turnout rates tended to be higher in suburban counties than in urban and rural ones, and that the pre-2016 conventional wisdom about off- versus on-year turnout has changed — which could pose both an opportunity and a danger to Democrats in 2024.

Since former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, turnout in U.S. elections has been off the charts. According to U.S. Census data, 53 percent of the citizen voting-age population voted in 2018, the highest midterm turnout since at least 1978. The 2020 election broke another record with 67 percent turnout, the highest since 1992. And midterm turnout in 2022 was almost as high as in 2018, at 52 percent.

Turnout rates in off-year elections during the same span have also been elevated. And if the 2023 elections are any indication, turnout in the 2024 presidential election will probably be very high as well. Compared to previous off-year elections with the same types of races on the ballot, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all had their highest turnout since at least 2011, and Kentucky and Virginia came very close to matching their turnout acmes from 2019.

The state with the highest 2023 turnout was Ohio; its statewide turnout rate of 43 percent almost matched its 47 percent turnout rate in the 2022 midterms, when the ballot included a competitive open Senate race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan (as well as a less competitive gubernatorial race). This was likely due to high voter engagement on Issue 1, a (successful) ballot measure to codify the right to abortion in the state constitution.

Contentious ballot questions have motivated similar off-year turnout levels in Ohio before: Turnout hit 42 percent in 2011 as voters chose to repeal an unpopular GOP-backed collective bargaining restriction. But Ohio’s high turnout this year seems to be a strong argument in favor of the theory that abortion is still driving voters (especially liberal voters) to the polls, even more than a year removed from the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Ballot questions addressing abortion access will likely be on the ballot again in several states in 2024, and while their effects on turnout may be less pronounced in a presidential year, they could still make a difference — especially when it comes to turning out young voters.

It’s kind of pathetic that we think of stats like 42 percent and even slightly better figures hovering around 50 percent as high turnout numbers. Never mind the percentage of voters who are actually well-informed. It gets worse in selected states as you read the rest of the article. But the article’s most important point is that “one consistent theme across states was that suburban counties saw significantly higher turnout than adjacent cities.”

For example, in Ohio, turnout ranged from 36 to 46 percent in the four counties housing the state’s largest city centers. But turnout was particularly high in populous exurbs, like Delaware County north of Columbus and Geauga County east of Cleveland, which saw turnout rates of 62 and 55 percent, respectively. The results suggest that Democratic mobilization around abortion was one factor driving turnout here: For example, Issue 1 was approved with 57 percent of the vote statewide, while President Joe Biden got just 45 percent in 2020 — a 12-percentage-point difference. But in Geauga County, Issue 1 got 55 percent of the vote, and Biden got 38 percent — a 17-point improvement.

Yang, Radcliffe and Fuong take a deeper dive and provide graphics to underscore the relatively high turnouts in the burbs of the selected states. The suburban strongholds appear to be where Democrats can expect more victories in the years ahead. They conclude:

What these new trends mean for turnout next year isn’t immediately clear. In contrast to the Obama years, odd- and even-year turnout patterns haven’t been totally predictable since 2016, so it’s hard to say whether turnout in urban areas in 2024 will be as high as Democrats hope. But regardless of whether the new voting patterns in cities and rural areas are here to stay, it looks like suburban and mostly urban counties now reliably have the highest turnout — no matter what the calendar says.

Over the past several years, turnout slumps in major cities have been a cause for concern for Democrats. But at the same time, surging turnout in the suburbs — which have become bluer as they’ve grown more racially diverse and as college graduates have moved toward Democrats — seems to have helped offset this. Though suburbs are certainly not monolithic in their party preferences, even small leftward shifts in these areas have benefited Democrats— particularly as they’ve been accompanied by, or perhaps helped drive, high turnout. With this trend continuing in 2023, it seems safe to say suburbs will remain a major political battleground for years to come.

None of this is inevitable and recent years have brought wild cards to the election game which can confound the most astute political analysts. But Dems have to bet on the best available data, which clearly points to cultivating suburban voters as an increasingly pivotal element of Democratic electoral coalitions.

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