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Last weekend, U-T San Diego featured a provocative article analyzing the results from this month’s mayoral primary. The story began:
Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio is in the November runoff for San Diego mayor based largely on his ability to get supporters to the polls at a far higher rate than his opponents in the primary earlier this month. By comparison, Democratic Rep. Bob Filner did a relatively poor job yet nearly finished ahead of DeMaio in the overall tally.
The article focused on turnout in the June 5 primary election, which was 15 percentage points higher in precincts where DeMaio had come in first compared to areas that had voted for Filner. Reporters Craig Gustafson and Matt Clark draw two conclusions from these numbers:
DeMaio clearly was more successful than his rivals in get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in neighborhoods where he is viewed favorably. Filner, who ran a low-key campaign and finished about 2,300 votes behind DeMaio, has great potential to expand his support base when the Democrats who ignored the primary show up to vote for President Barack Obama in November.
Neither conclusion is correct.
Although turnout was indeed higher among DeMaio supporters, this pattern reflects San Diego’s political fault lines rather than quality of each campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation. As we have documented in our book , turnout in Republican parts of the city is always higher, regardless of which candidates are running and how much outreach they do. The gap reflects the fact that Democrats draw their greatest support from lower income and minority voters — precisely the groups that have the lowest rates of political participation, a pattern public opinion researchers have documented for more than three decades.
How much did the difference between DeMaio’s and Filner’s get-out-the-vote efforts matter? And to what extent can Filner rely on greater turnout in November to close the gap? One way to answer these questions is to identify voters currently living in precincts that voted for DeMaio and Filner and compare their turnout in previous elections using county voting records. These numbers tell a very different story.
First, consider the last gubernatorial election. During the November 2010 contest, turnout was 70 percent among voters in pro-DeMaio precincts compared to 56 percent in precincts won by Filner this month. The 14-percentage point gap in 2010 is nearly identical to the 15-percentage point gap in this month’s primary, although Republican Meg Whitman hardly outshone Democrat Jerry Brown in the ground game during the governor’s race. (Turnout was similarly 12 percentage points higher in DeMaio precincts during the 2010 primary, another low-turnout election.)
Next, consider the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama’s campaign invested greater resources in its get-out-the-vote efforts than any other modern presidential campaign, and participation in the election was the highest in recent memory. However, this helped close the gap in turnout only marginally. In DeMaio precincts, 91 percent of voters took part in the 2008 election, compared to 83 percent in Filner precincts. Since Obama supporters were also substantially more likely to “roll off” — to cast a ballot in the presidential contest but abstain from the city races — higher turnout will hardly prove a panacea for the Filner campaign.
Vladimir Kogan starts as an assistant professor of political science at the Ohio State University in the fall.
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