Why the increase? Was it enthusiasm about the gubernatorial standoff between Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox? Excitement about the first viable political independent running for statewide office, in Steve Poizner? Were water conservationists inspired to turn out en masse to support Proposition 72, which changed the way that rainwater collection systems are taxed?
Probably not, said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.
Instead, the Trump factor loomed large.
“This particular ballot was not all that sexy,” he said. “The reason for the higher turnout is because of what’s going on in Washington, D.C., not what’s happening in California.”
That’s largely borne out by the numbers. Some of the biggest increases in turnout relative to the 2014 midterm primary were in areas with the most competitive congressional races. Orange County as a whole saw a 19 percentage point increase in turnout
Zoom in to the level of Assembly district, and the two areas that saw that biggest bump hug the coast between Dana Point and northern San Diego County. That’s home to two congressional seats that Democrats hope to flip this November. Prior to election day, it was ground zero of millions of dollars in advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Both districts saw turnout spikes of over 20 points.
That surge in voter enthusiasm “was a little bit of a surprise, but not unexpected,” said Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.
Local factors did play a role in some cases. San Francisco, for example, also saw a significant turnout increase. There weren’t any competitive congressional races there. But there was a nail-biter mayoral election that drew national headlines.
Despite the higher-than-expected turnout, the composition of the electorate may not have changed much. In California, voters tend to skew older, whiter and more affluent — especially in midterm elections — and there isn’t much evidence thus far that changed this year.