Capitol Alert

'Trump bump' for California voter turnout was wishful thinking, experts say

Voters turn out to vote in the California primary election at the Fresno County Registrar of Voters office in downtown Fresno on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Voters turn out to vote in the California primary election at the Fresno County Registrar of Voters office in downtown Fresno on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

Since President Donald Trump took office, California has tried to place itself as the center of the resistance to his administration. Some people viewed the primaries as a referendum on the president, indicative of Democrats' ability to mobilize voters.

But now that counties have fully reported their primary election results, experts doubt there was much of a "Trump bump" in June.

"If there was a huge Trump effect, we would have seen more votes cast in closely contested House races for Democrats than Republicans, and we just didn't see that," said Wesley Hussey, associate professor of political science at Sacramento State.

Turnout among registered voters jumped to 37 percent this year — California's highest rate in a non-presidential primary since 1998 — stoking excitement about a more enthused electorate in 2018.

Hussey said the numbers are impressive, because California previously saw a decrease in voter turnout in four consecutive non-presidential election year primaries, culminating in a historic low of 25 percent in 2014.

But political consultant Paul Mitchell worries people are overstating the importance of the 37 percent turnout rate and Trump's ability to drive voters to the polls.

Mitchell said the numbers belong in a larger historical context: The baseline turnout in a gubernatorial primary is 34 percent. He called this year's results "just slightly better than average."

"When you look at past primaries with open gubernatorial primaries, this is dead even," Mitchell said.

John Vigna, communications director for the California Democratic Party, said it's difficult to quantify Trump's impact on voting.

"The huge Trump effect, you're going to see that in the general election, not necessarily the primary," Vigna said. "Getting voters to the polls is a much more challenging thing for us (Democrats) than it is for them (Republicans)."


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Editor's note: This post was updated at 12:40 p.m. to correct Wesley Hussey's name.