Incumbent Hanford Republican Andy Vidak walloped challenger Luis Chavez in the June primary election for the 14th state Senate seat, posting a 22-percentage-point victory margin.
Thanks to the state’s election rules, the two will meet next month for round two. But experts say making any assumptions on that outcome based on the June primary results would be wrong.
In the almost yearlong Chavez-Vidak battle — or any other race, for that matter — June and November are two very different elections.
“In general, people see the November election as being the high-stakes election,” says Nathan Monroe, a University of California at Merced political scientist. “They see June as a preliminary round.”
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For that reason, turnout is always higher in November than in June, a fact backed up by statistics. In the June 2012 primary, for instance, voter turnout was 31.6% of registered voters. In the November 2012 general election, it was 72.3%.
There are some general truths in those numbers. For one, voters who take the time to cast ballots in the June primary will almost certainly vote in the November general election. And, generally speaking, Republicans are more dedicated voters than Democrats, which means they turn out in higher numbers, especially in primaries, experts say.
In addition, there’s a big difference between presidential election years like 2012 and gubernatorial election years like this one. Voter turnout is highest of all in November of a presidential election year. If a president isn’t being elected, fewer voters cast ballots and an election can often turn on whether the governor’s race is competitive. Another factor that could peak voter interest is a ballot initiative or a statewide race such as a competitive U.S. Senate race.
It all means no two elections are the same, which can be a big headache for candidates and their political consultants, who are trying to win their respective races.
This year, for instance, there is almost nothing that is driving widespread voter interest.
Gov. Jerry Brown is widely assumed to be headed to an easy re-election over Republican challenger Neel Kashkari, and there are no true hot-button ballot initiatives. Even Proposition 1 — the water bond — likely won’t drive voters to the polls because it is considered more wonkish than sexy. It all has political experts looking for any bit of data they can find to determine just who will vote, and how to motivate voters from their party — or to woo independents — for their candidate.
“We’re watching surveys all over the country, trying to get a feel for what’s happening,” says Tim Clark, a Sacramento-based political consultant who is running Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s state controller campaign, as well as a handful of others.
Swearengin, a Republican, is trying to beat Democrat Betty Yee in a state where Democrats have a 15-percentage-point advantage in voter registration. On paper, it is a tough task for any Republican. In reality, none have won a statewide office recently. But there are predictions of a possible record-low voter turnout, which could benefit Republicans like Swearengin.
Clark says the Ebola outbreak, Veterans Administration crisis and Middle East turmoil have hit President Obama, who is the leader of the Democratic Party.
“All these things are coming with Election Day coming, so (Obama’s) hard-core supporter is not enthused,” Clark says. “You talk to Democrats, and there is not a lot of motivation to vote.”
Without a statewide issue or candidate driving voter interest — and especially if Democrats in general are not enthused — it means some regions of the state that have competitive races could see higher turnout than other parts, Monroe says.
The central San Joaquin Valley is one of those areas, he says.
Several congressional and legislative races between Bakersfield and Modesto either are, or have hints of being, competitive.
One of those is the Chavez-Vidak race, despite what happened in June.
Under the state’s election rules, the top two finishers move on to November. But there were only two candidates in the 14th state Senate race, so the dry-run victory was worth nothing more than public-relations points to Vidak. This time, the results will count.
It shows in campaign spending.
Chavez spent close to $1.7 million between July 1 and Oct. 18. Vidak’s total was $1.38 million. In addition, independent groups have poured another $1.34 million into the race. That’s more than $4 million in television and radio advertisements, campaign mail pieces and other election-related costs that will likely push up voter interest — and turnout. By comparison, Chavez spent around $429,000 ahead of the June primary, and Vidak just a bit more than $200,000.
“In legislative races, the more money spent by an incumbent and challenger together, the better chance the challenger has,” UC Merced’s Monroe says. “The reason is the name recognition boost for every dollar spent as a (better known) incumbent is much smaller, whereas (the lesser-known) Chavez is getting bang for the buck with each dollar spent.”
Locally, some big-money Fresno County races likely changed the face of the June primary and the coming November election.
In June, it was the Fresno County District Attorney’s race between incumbent Elizabeth Egan and challenger Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp, who ultimately posted a convincing win. (Still, Fresno County’s voter turnout was only 1-percentage-point higher than the state — 26.2% to 25.1%.) Now, it is the Fresno County Superior Court judge race pitting Lisa Gamoian against Rachel Hill. Both races were decided by voters across Fresno County.
Local political consultant Tim Orman handled Smittcamp’s June campaign, and is also doing Gamoian’s, as well as Fresno County District 4 supervisor candidate Buddy Mendes.
“Every election is different,” Orman says. “In the primary, I didn’t look at it very much in a partisan sense. What are issues common to all voters? But in the general election, I’m looking through a more partisan lens, trying to tailor (a political message) one way to Republicans, another to Democrats and another to independents.”
Orman says political consultants have become more adept at predicting who will vote in the primary election, as well as those who will skip the primary but vote in the general election.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but we’re pretty good at it,” he says.
Reaching out to those potential November voters, however, is more expensive, Orman says. Television costs are higher. More mailers are needed, each of which carries a production and postage cost. Voters often have to sift through more political clutter in November. For all that, Orman still feels it is harder to run a June primary election.
“You’re trying to create attention sometimes where there’s not,” he says.
But this coming election could be unlike any seen in California in awhile. And while every election is different, this one could be a true outlier. At this point — even as mail-only voters have been casting ballots for more than two weeks — the political pros aren’t sure who will vote, how many will vote or even who is motivated to vote, and if they are, by what?
Says Clark, the campaign consultant: “The (voter) turnout models are out the window, and from there it’s craziness.”