As the state and country move forward from this year’s primary election, experts are already looking at how the general election could play out in November.
Dr. Nancy Cade, history and political science professor at the University of Pikeville, said that she was “pleasantly surprised” by the statewide turnout of the primary election, given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. She said she was initially worried that the delay in Kentucky’s primary election date would play a factor in lowering voter turnout, but that did not turn out to be the case.
“I was afraid that COVID fears were going to keep people away from the polls, but it would appear a large number of people went ahead and did absentee voting and did mail-in ballots,” Cade said. “I think that is a very helpful sign that people were still taking it seriously, even though we did have the COVID concerns and we had the COVID delay.”
Local counties’ turnout was a mixed bag of results. In Pike County, the overall turnout was 21.03 percent, compared to the 25.2 percent turnout in 2016. Both of those numbers, however, lag behind the 2008 primary turnout of 33.4 percent, when a still-competitive Kentucky primary featured Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and eventual winner Barack Obama.
The state turnout was relatively high in the June 23 primary, with 28.87 percent of voters turning out for the election. That number was far higher than the 20.6 percent turnout rate in 2016 and much higher than the dismal 13.9 percent rate seen in 2012.
Pike County Clerk Rhonda Taylor said the primary, despite all the changes, went “better than expected,” particularly with all the changes, such as reduced polling places and an increased emphasis on mail-in voting.
She said the county is still waiting for decisions on how the November general election will go, but she expects that it will likely be run similarly to the primary.
“I look for that to possibly happen again in the fall,” she said. “It’s still up in the air right now. One group said they’re not going to do it again and another group likes it and they want to do it.”
Taylor said she’s not sure how exactly how the state entities are working together on the matter, whether it’s a “tug-of-war” or whether they’re working together on it.”
She does, however, expect more people to turn out for the general election.
“I think it’ll be a much bigger turnout,” she said. “It’s not just presidential. You’ve got a lot of local offices going on there, too.”
Breaking it down by party
Regarding the Republican presidential primary, Cade said that the turnout of people across the state who voted for President Donald Trump has appeared to be lower than the primary election of 2016, based on raw data of this year’s primary election results. She said that lower voter turnout could prove interesting for him in the November general election.
“In 2016, Donald Trump brought out a lot of people who don’t typically vote, a lot of blue-collar, no-college males,” Cade said. “He inspired a lot of people to vote. Will they vote in 2020? That’s where it becomes very interesting, and I am not convinced that he can bring them out again because he didn’t bring them out in the primary.”
Regarding the Democratic presidential primary, Cade said that results could also prove interesting for Democratic candidate Joe Biden if Republicans choose to vote for him rather than Trump during this year’s general election.
According to NPR, several GOP campaigns and initiatives have started advocating for Republican voters to vote for Biden instead of Trump in the 2020 general election, and many of these initiatives were created by conservative critics. They include groups like “The Lincoln Project,” a super PAC formed in 2019 made of anti-Trump GOP strategists, and “43 Alumni for Biden,” which has brought in hundreds of former staffers of former president George W. Bush.
The Republican Party has carried Kentucky in general elections since 2000, and Cade said that we will have to see in the November general election if Kentucky Republican voters vote for Biden and if those initiatives had an impact.
“They are really pushing Republicans to vote for Biden, and traditional conservative middle-of-the-road Republicans,” Cade said, referring to the Republican-backed campaigns against Trump. “I’ll be curious to see if they can be successful on that because Kentucky will be a great test state for that, since Kentucky has a lot of traditional conservative Republicans.”
Kentucky saw a close Democratic senatorial race in the primary election, with candidate Amy McGrath pulling in 45.4 percent of the vote (247,037 votes) and candidate Charles Booker receiving 42.6 percent of the vote (231,888 votes), according to NPR.
Cade said she believes the close percentage of difference between McGrath and Booker will help McGrath during the general election. However, she acknowledged that defeating incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell will be difficult, due to his strong financial backing and dedicated base in Kentucky.
“Booker has come out in support of her,” Cade said. “I haven’t seen if he actually endorsed her, but he has talked about how important it is to get her elected and things like that. I think that’s going to help her because I think his people hopefully will come out and vote for her through his endorsement.”
McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, has raised more than $41 million so far, outraising McConnell by $9 million. Much of her financial support, Cade said, has come from outside of the state.
“She has a lot of support outside the state, which tells me that Mitch McConnell is not real popular around the country, but unfortunately for the Democrats, those people don’t vote in Kentucky,” Cade said.
Looking toward November
Cade said she thinks that COVID-19 and the current state of the economy will be the two main drivers for how voters will vote in the general election because of the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on millions of people financially. She said the two issues will probably drive people more in how they will vote this November, instead of foreign or trade policies.
“I think there’s going to be two issues this fall,” Cade said. “One is ‘get me back to work’ and the other is my healthcare because this has really pointed out to the American public that our healthcare system is very much unequal. The thing is that you can look at those issues from multiple different directions so I think those are going to be the big ones.”
In Kentucky, the rate of unemployment for June this year was 4.3 percent, down from 16.1 percent in April. In March of this year, the unemployment rate was only at 5.3 percent, according to the Kentucky Center for Statistics.
She said the state of the economy has kept a lot of people from being able to stay employed or find other work.
“The tradition in political science is we always say, ‘People vote their pocketbook,’ and by that, we mean how people are doing personally economically,” Cade said. “It doesn’t matter how the economy’s doing. It matters how I’m doing — can I pay my rent, can I feed my kids, can I whatever it is that I want, how is my personal economy doing. For a lot of people, the COVID crisis is devastating their personal economy.”
She said she thinks that the ongoing issues involving racism and police brutality may also play a role for some voters, though it may not have as big of an impact on the general election as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy.
“I know we’ve had a lot of racial issues rising up with Black Lives Matter and other groups like that,” Cade said. “I’m not sure that’s going to play that big of a role in this election. I think the other two issues will kind of bump it down a little bit, but still, it may play a role for some voters.”
Although it is unclear how the general election will play out this year, Cade emphasized how important it is for the public to learn about the candidates who are running in the general election before they vote.
“It is incredibly important for us to learn about who’s running for office, see how they’re going to address the problems, because pulling us out of this COVID crisis is going to be the job of whoever it is that we elect come November,” Cade said. “We’ve got to be more careful than we might have been had we not had this crisis. We need to really look at things. I would like to see the COVID crisis making us more studious and conscientious in our votes.”