The narrative in the past week has been that Oregon’s voter turnout in the general election has been about average. But is the full story being told?
The state’s motor voter law, enacted in 2016, automatically registers voters every time they apply for or renew driver’s licenses. This year, about 91 percent of eligible voters are registered, roughly 20 percent higher than before the law.
“That means there’s hundreds of thousands of new people who are registered to vote who most likely would not have been if not for automatic voter registration,” said John Horvick, vice president and political director of Portland-based polling firm DHM Research, at the Columbia Forum speaker series Tuesday night at the Baked Alaska Annex.
While registered voter turnout in Oregon in midterm elections typically ranges between 69 percent and 71 percent, as it did this year, the number of eligible voters who participate typically flat lines at 52 percent. This year, roughly 63 percent of eligible voters participated.
“So for an apples-to-apples comparison, it makes more sense to look at the percentage of eligible voters who turned out in past elections, and we’ll compare that to 2018,” Horvick said. “Turnout was exceptionally high here in Oregon.”
Oregon Republicans have turned out to vote at a higher rate than Democrats since at least 1964. This year, both political parties turned out at an 80 percent rate.
“That actually is consistent with the national story,” Horvick said. “Democrats turned out, and so did Republicans.”
With voter rates being equal in both parties, Republicans face a significant challenge due to the overall number of registered Democratic voters. A massive population of Democrats lives in and around Portland and, since they live bunched together, can be easier to energize.
“They are so much better organized. It is night and day compared to what Republicans have, in terms of, the unions are organized, progressive groups are organized and they worked hand in hand to get the vote out in 2018,” Horvick said. “It’s just the turnout, you know, machine is much stronger on the Democratic side.”
As a result, Republicans generally face about a 9 percent incline at the start of every election, Horvick said.
That impacted the strategy of state Rep. Knute Buehler, a Bend orthopedic surgeon, in his failed bid to upset Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.
Buehler needed to target suburbanites, moderate Democrats and independent voters rather than playing to a more right-wing base, Horvick said. He focused on convincing them that Brown had failed on the issues they cared about like education, foster care, housing and homelessness.
“The Democrats in power have failed,” Horvick said in summarizing Buehler’s message. “Moderates, liberals — the candidates that you’ve supported in the past are not delivering on the things that you care about. Try something new.”
In January, 65 percent of Oregonians hadn’t heard of Buehler. Brown’s strategy, then, was to define and disqualify him, using large sums of money from labor unions and progressive groups to do so.
“It was a blank slate,” Horvick said. “So one of the things that she had to do … (was to) do what she could to define him, to tell voters who he is before he had an opportunity to do it for himself and define him in a way that was going to be negative to the average voter in Oregon, which right now means Republican. It means Trump. It means Washington, D.C.”
In speaking with Democrats, Horvick noticed that they were generally not upset with the governor but could name few, if any, of her accomplishments.
“Satisfaction, but not elation,” Horvick said. “She was doing OK, but they weren’t super excited about her either.”
As a result, Horvick said, she needed to tap into her actions as governor that would energize a left-wing base — minimum wage increases, paid family leave, clean energy policies and the $5.3 billion transportation package.
One major factor working in Brown’s favor was the economy. Because of an economic upswing this decade, the percentage of Oregonians who identified jobs and the economy as the state’s top issue plummeted from 30 percent to 9 percent in the past five years, Horvick said.
“So this wasn’t going to be an election that Knute Buehler was going to be able to say, ‘The incumbent has ruined the economy,’” Horvick said. “So he’s going to have to run on some other things.”
The strategy didn’t propel Buehler to a win. Horvick noted, though, that economic concerns have not gone away, largely due to the cost of housing and other things.
On top of polarized answers to specific questions, including economic concerns, Horvick presented data that highlighted exactly how much bitter partisanship has spread in Oregon.
In 1994, 16 percent of Democrats held a “very unfavorable view” of Republicans, and Republicans felt that way about Democrats at a 17 percent rate. Now, those numbers have skyrocketed to 43 percent and 45 percent.
“Voting, more and more, has been about who you dislike more than who you like,” Horvick said. “I don’t have an answer to that — what we should do, how to change it. But I show these to help remind us that not everybody in this room is going to think like us.”