- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Voter turnout in nonpresidential elections is usually driven by statewide or Senate races, but voters Tuesday were unusually motivated by House races, according to a study by George Mason University.

“The really surprising numbers are the House races where there was a nationalization of campaigns,” said Michael McDonald, George Mason University assistant professor and director of the university’s United States Election Project.

Mr. McDonald, who was part of the sequestered consortium hired by news organizations on Election Day to analyze exit polls, predicted turnout at 39 percent, just shy of the actual turnout of 39.7 percent of more than 226 million eligible voters, or about 82 million votes.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 million people, or 42.3 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots in the most recent nonpresidential election in 2002, compared with 83 million, or 41.9 percent, in 1998. But turnout in battleground states was higher than the national average — and largely fueled by House races.

“Based on past trends, we usually don’t see House races mattering in terms of turnout,” Mr. McDonald said.

Of the at least 29 seats picked up by Democrats, seven came from four states where the party did not field a Senate candidate — Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa and North Carolina, although Iowa had a governor’s race. Indiana’s only statewide race was for the Senate seat of Republican Richard G. Lugar, in which the Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. Nevertheless, 36 percent of Indiana voters turned out to knock off three incumbent Republicans.

In Iowa, 48 percent of voters turned out to help the Democrats grab two Republican-held seats, and with 32 percent turnout, North Carolina gave one more of its seats to a Democrat. In Pennsylvania, with nearly 43 percent turnout, voters gave four more House seats to Democrats and defeated Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

“This time around, I would predict 21 percent in Kentucky, and it looks like 39 percent,” said Mr. McDonald, where five-term Republican Anne M. Northup was defeated.

Another report released yesterday, by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, had a slightly higher voter turnout estimate, because of the inclusion of 4.2 million absentee, provisional and mailed-in ballots, some of which haven’t been counted yet. The CSAE study estimated that final vote numbers would be about 83 million ballots cast, or 40.4 percent of the eligible electorate.

Excluding California, Oregon and Washington, where absentee, provision and mail ballots were still being counted, “only 21 states reported turnout increases. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia reported declines,” the report said.

Republicans lost two House seats in Florida, where turnout was 39 percent, yet voters elected Republican Charlie Crist governor. In Arizona, where turnout was 34 percent, two Republican seats changed hands, yet Republican Sen. Jon Kyl was re-elected.

There was no Senate race in New Hampshire, where voters knocked off the Republicans in both House races and voted to re-elect Democratic Gov. John Lynch.

In California, a 38 percent turnout re-elected Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and defeated Rep. Richard W. Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Democrats also picked up one House seat in Minnesota, where turnout was the highest nationwide, at 60 percent. Democrats picked up one seat each in Colorado, where turnout was 50 percent; Connecticut, where it was 45 percent; Kansas, 41 percent; Ohio, 45 percent; Texas, 32 percent and Wisconsin, 53 percent.

In states where Republicans faced minimal opposition, such as Mississippi and Louisiana, turnout was low, at 29 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

“The difference in similar states without interesting or statewide races or nothing on the ballot, it looks like people were paying attention to their House races. There was really something going on in the House level, and it deserves a closer look. In the past, the level of competition at the House level was not at all correlated with turnout.”

Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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