Democrats need more voters like Sandi Strasberg if they want to avoid another shellacking.
For nearly 20 years, this loyal Democrat did what most of them do: She went to the voting booth only for presidential contests and ignored everything from congressional elections to governor’s races.
But now, this 50-year-old mother of two intends to take her anger at President Donald Trump out on the Republicans running for Congress.
“Everything changed when Trump got elected,” said Strasberg, a resident of Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the northern Atlanta suburbs. “I started seeing what’s going on in Washington, started seeing all of these horrible things.”
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Strasburg not only plans to vote in a special House of Representatives election on Tuesday, she’ll also do so after spending months volunteering for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff.
“I have to give my voice,” she said.
Democrats suffered electoral wipe-outs in recent midterm elections – the party lost its House majority in 2010 and Senate majority in 2014 – in no small part because their political base simply didn’t vote. The problem extends to the pillars of the party’s electoral coalition, including African-Americans, Latinos and young voters, whose absence from the polling booth skews elections in the GOP’s favor.
But Democratic leaders are optimistic that Trump and the anger he has stirred in voters will fundamentally change the dynamic next year, giving the party an unexpected chance to strike back at Republicans and make major gains in Congress.
Democrats think they’ve found an early test case for their theory: The special election in Georgia’s 6th District. The race has drawn national attention as the first political bellwether since Trump took office, because despite being a traditional Republican stronghold it split its vote between Hillary Clinton and Trump.
Ossoff, the favored Democratic candidate in an 18-person field, might win because his voters are unusually engaged in what might normally be a sleepy race. Even Republicans watching the race say their polling data find that Democratic voters are more interested in the election than Republicans are.
Democrats concede the energy can easily dissipate by Election Day, especially if Trump becomes more popular or the party establishment suffers an irrevocable split with its grass roots.
But so far, what party strategists see gives them hope.
“You’re seeing it in data and you’re seeing it in stories on the ground,” said Preston Elliot, a Democratic strategist. “We’re definitely seeing the energy.”
Elliot knows firsthand the penalty Democratic candidates usually pay in a midterm election: The veteran operative managed the losing re-election bid of former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, when the Democratic incumbent lost by less than 2 percentage points.
An analysis afterward found that if the state had had presidential-like turnout, Hagan would have won by 3 points, Elliot said.
That kind of steep drop-off aligns with other Democratic candidates in midterms. In the last two of them, turnout changes from the preceding presidential races cost Democratic candidates 3 to 5 points, according to Yair Ghitza, chief scientist for the Democratic data and analytics firm Catalist.
Republican voters also turn out at lower rates in nonpresidential contests, but their coalition of mostly older, white voters drops off much less precipitously.
The Democratic Party has also been encouraged by last week’s special House election in Kansas, where a little-known Democratic candidate lost by just 7 points in a deeply conservative district. It was an encouraging sign for a party that has also won a handful of other, smaller races since Trump took office.
“When we step back and look at the pattern of the recent elections, we do see a pattern of Democrats being engaged,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who has been tracking the returns.
McDonald cautioned Democrats not to take the elections as a sure sign that coming contests will be equally as favorable, saying special elections sometimes have unique circumstances not replicable in other races.
Party strategists, however, say the drop-off was harmful but understandable: Democrats grew complacent with President Barack Obama in office, while Republicans – incited by his performance in the White House – grew angry. And angry people are much more likely to vote.
The dynamic has been flipped on its head this year.
“The environment is different, the candidates are different,” Elliot said. “We’re not in the same position.”
But Elliot and other Democrats say that even if Democrats are energized, that alone won’t be enough to guarantee big wins in next year’s races.
The last time Democrats had a winning midterm election, in 2006, the Democratic Party was energized because of President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War. But the party that year didn’t just win back majorities in the House and Senate because its base voters turned out – it also won over independent and moderate voters who had backed GOP candidates in previous elections.
“Turnout is not the only story,” Ghitza said. “2006, for example, was a Democratic wave year with similar turnout demographics as 2010 and 2014."
Increased base turnout will make defending seats easier, strategists say. But with 10 Democratic incumbents defending states Trump won last year, the party will need to win over middle-of-the road voters, too.
“They’re going to have to balance persuasion and turnout,” Elliot said. “That’s always the case.”