Last week, we discussed what had been correctly labeled the "demographic tidal wave" in Virginia. That post got my phone ringing a lot with the same question- when will this hit in Virginia state elections? That's a complex question that is driven by a number of different factors.
In Virginia because we have elections each year the turnout and participation greatly varies from year to year. Obviously the highest turnout occurs in Presidential elections (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012), while the lowest occurs in our midterm state elections for the General Assembly (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015). In between is the mid-term federal cycle for Congress (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014) which two out of three times also has a U.S. Senate election on the ballot and the Governor/Lt. Governor/Attorney General election cycle (2001, 2005, 2009, 2013).
The first thing you should understand when analyzing these trends is that turnout can widely vary even within the same cycle when there is not something that is pushing voters to the polls. It can also vary based on the type of work that people do, and the media market they live in. For example:
Henrico 92,359 in 2005, 101,017 in 2006 (Increase of 9.3%)
Prince William 66,797 in 2005 88,111 in 2006 (Increase of 31.9%)
Virginia Beach 96,889 in 2005, 124,050 in 2006 (Increase of 28.0%)
These numbers are typical for the regions of each county. In Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the large federal workforce (including military) are much more interested in federal elections than state elections. That also drives the (lack of) media coverage of Virginia issues in those markets. An interesting federal midterm drives far more voters to the polls than a Governor's race. However, in the Richmond area, federal midterm election turnout is much closer to the Governor's election as they have much better coverage of Virginia issues around the capitol and many of the voters either work for the state or have jobs that relate in some way to state government.
Once we get past these regional types of voting behaviors, things begin to come down to individual voters and their likelyhood of voting in a particular election. One of the great myths out there is that African Americans have lower turnout than whites. This is completely false. A 45 year old college educated African American woman who lives in Newport News and has a household income of $90,000 a year is just as likely to vote as her next door neighbor, a 45 year old college educated white woman who has a degree and a household income of $90,000 a year. The place this myth comes from is threefold. One, African Americans still have a shorter life expectancy in this country which means as you look at population by age, they are underrepresented in the senior population- which has the highest turnout rates. Second, minorities are less likely to go to college for a variety of reasons- which directly leads to lower turnout. Third, politicians tend to spend their money trying to turnout voters who have participated before, so once you fall off the voting list, you are less likely to even hear about the election going on with the exception of TV ads. Big picture- African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos all vote at similar (sometimes even slightly higher) rates than whites if they are compared by education and income level.
So what does drive turnout? Here's my shorthand guide for what you usually need to see from a voter before they will participate in each election cycle.
PRESIDENTIAL- The highest turnout cycle. People who don't participate tend to be transient (usually younger) and not participating because they miss registration deadlines. But the vast majority of voters do participate in this cycle. Median voter age is around 44 in Virginia.
MIDTERM CONGRESSIONAL- Voters who fall off from the Presidential cycle usually have lived in the community less than five years, and don't know the local candidates. The fall off voters may have a party preference (usually Democratic nowadays) but don't strongly identify with a party, so many won't turnout just to vote for names with a (D) next to them. This means renters tend to fall off, while most homeowners stay in the electorate. Median voter age rises to around 52 in Virginia.
GOVERNOR- Turnout continues to fall in this cycle. As noted above, areas with big federal influences like Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia fall even quicker. To vote in a Governor's election, the vast majority of voters will a) own their home, b) live in a community at least 10 years and c) have plans to stay in Virginia in their immediate future. Median age of voters in Virginia is 54.
MIDTERM STATE LEGISLATURE- The lowest turnout election. Most voters in this cycle have lived in their community at least 15 years, and have a 90% or better rate of voting in the other three cycles before they begin participating in this cycle. Median age of voters in Virginia is 58.
All of this is the long way of answering the question you all came here to find out. When will the tide shift in Virginia, and when will the blue team have the upper hand?
Before I tell you that- one major caveat to remember. Kansas and Wyoming elected Democratic Governors a few years ago, while states like New York and Massachusetts have had Republican Governors in recent history. Having a generic party advantage doesn't mean a party will win- candidates and campaigns still matter. This just tells you who has the upperhand going in.
WHEN THE TIDAL WAVE HITS
Presidential Cycle- 2012. By numbers, 2008 should have been the last time the GOP had a voter advantage in a Presidential cycle in Virginia, but two wars, an economic crisis and a once in a lifetime political wave, gave the Democrats the edge a cycle early. In Presidential cycles, we have hit the tipping point, and this state will lean blue until there is some major realignment.
Mid-Term Congressional Cycle- 2022. Republicans will continue to have the upperhand in this cycle until more of the younger blue voters settle down into communities and put down roots. This number is different for each Congressional district, but statewide will not have a plurality blue electorate until 2022 unless Democrats figure out how to turn out their voters.
Governor's Cycle- 2033. That's a long way off, but Democrats are not even headed in the right direction yet. 2017 will be the low point for the party in terms of the natural composition of the electorate, then the ice will begin to thaw by 2025. 2029 will be close in terms of party ID, and Democrats will take control of the electorate by 2033.
Midterm State Legislature- 2039. The low point for the party comes in 2023, and party ID isn't even close until 2031. This obviously will vary district by district which makes gerrymandering an even bigger concern.