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Two Days to Primary, and so Much Uncertain

September 2, 2018

Pundits tend to overemphasize the trope that elections “all come down to turnout,” but in Tuesday’s primary elections, what the turnout will be is anyone’s guess.

On one hand, Democratic engagement has been historically high in primaries across the country this cycle in a clear response to the Trump administration. On the other, Tuesday’s primaries in Massachusetts come the day after Labor Day, so families may still be returning from end-of-summer vacations.

A stunning 10 Democrats are on the ballot for the 3rd Congressional District, which means more candidates knocking on doors and encouraging more voters to participate -- but on the flip side, the large field means some voters might find the choice too difficult and instead decide to sit out.

“I think it’s incredibly difficult to forecast with any accuracy what the turnout’s going to be the day after Labor Day for this primary,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist and political commentator. “We have nothing to benchmark it against.”

Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s decision to set the primary on Sept. 4 came amid scheduling challenges. State law requires the primary to be held within seven days of the second Tuesday of September -- so for this year, between Sept. 4 and Sept. 18. But the following two Tuesdays, both Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, are Jewish holidays.

“For me, this is why we should have an earlier primary,” Marsh said. “The way to avoid all of this is have a primary in the spring and then have a six-month general election instead of a six-week general election.”

The schedule is not without precedent, though: when U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas -- whose coming retirement opens the seat up for the 3rd District’s current race -- won her primary in 2007, the election was also on a Sept. 4 Labor Day. More than 55,000 Democrats cast ballots in that primary, somewhat higher than had been expected.

If there is a lull because of the timing, it may be offset by the national climate, experts said. Democratic turnout has been above average across the country in primaries that have already taken place, a sign of high engagement heading into a key midterm election two years into Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We had primaries (on Tuesday) in Florida and Arizona, and you could say, ‘Well, the last week of August is a lousy time, people are on vacation or just getting back to school,’ and yet we saw turnout rates go way up,” said Dave Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor. “My guess is that whatever effect the scheduling has on turnout is probably not the most important variable determining turnout.”

Absentee ballots are being sought in higher numbers this year. Deb O’Malley, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, told the State House News Service that about 10,000 more voters requested absentee ballots this cycle than in recent years.

Interpreting that figure, though, is another challenge: absentee ballot usage may increase because more voters will be out of town so close to a federal holiday, or it may increase simply because people see it as a viable early-voting option.

Several races around Greater Lowell and north central Massachusetts will see contested primaries on Tuesday, but the most high-profile, by far, is for the 3rd District. The race remains packed with uncertainty: a poll released last week showed the leader, Dan Koh, with just 19 percent support and almost 30 percent of voters undecided.

How that historically large field -- the biggest in Massachusetts for a federal race since 1998 -- affects voting is also unclear.

“All else equal, we’d expect more candidates going out there knocking on doors, phonebanking to get people to turn out to get turnout up,” Hopkins said. “But it could be that some people just have a hard time deciding when they have so many choices.”

For Marsh, the 3rd District race is in “uncharted territory,” both because of timing and size. She believes that, as a result, the results will come down to campaign organization and success in converting early supporters into votes.

“It’s the get-out-the-vote effort on Tuesday that’s going to mean everything,” Marsh said. “That’s the only way you can control your destiny.”

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.

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