Philadelphia voters showed up for Tuesday’s election in a big way.
Driving rain throughout the day did not deter more than 51 percent of registered voters from casting a ballot, according to unofficial election tallies. The figure would make it the highest turnout for a midterm election since 1994, when turnout reached 52 percent, according to the City Commissioners’ Office. Turnout for midterm elections has traditionally remained around 40 percent.
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said Democrat and Republican voters alike had one thing in mind when they went to the polls.
“Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump,” Madonna said Wednesday. “This was all motivated and generated — the big turnout all over the state, all over the nation — by one thing: Trump.”
In Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1, Madonna noted: “The motivation was there.”
Madonna expected Democrats and Republican to remain energized and polarized through 2020.
“I think the excitement stays, the interest stays, the degree of polarization and partisanship remains very, very strong and that’s also a big motivating feature,” Madonna said. “And Trump’s controversial style and personality are at the heart of it.”
Andrea Custis, president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Urban League of Philadelphia, said she believes the city’s high turnout in the midterm has set a new bar.
“I am absolutely sure that this is setting the pace for where we’re going for the next election,” she said. “I think people get it. … I don’t think we’re going to lose this momentum and I think even more people will be out for the presidential election.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-1, who is chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Committee, agreed.
“Every day, he (Trump) does something crazy — worse and worse. … He’s not going to change,” Brady said.
As the most populous municipality in Pennsylvania, Madonna said, Philadelphia plays a huge role in deciding whether the state flips to Democrats in the 2020 presidential election. But that will depend on voter turnout, which Madonna said hinges on the Democratic nominee for president.
“We know it’s going to be heavily Democratic (in Philadelphia); that’s not what the issue is,” Madonna said. “The issue is the turnout.”
Voter apathy or excitement will be tested again before 2020: Philadelphians will vote again in 2019 when Mayor Jim Kenney will seek re-election, and City Council seats, county sheriff and more offices will be on the ballot.
Although Philadelphia’s turnout was historically high for a midterm, it didn’t match the typical turnout for presidential elections, which reaches above 60 percent. In the 2016 presidential election, 66 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia cast a ballot.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State said turnout numbers were not yet available as of Thursday. But Edison Media Research estimated that 50.5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot throughout the state on Tuesday compared to 36.5 percent in 2014.
Getting out the vote
Brady said a combination of Trump and quality candidates contributed to Democratic wins in the state and across the country. He also credited credited Democrats’ strong ward structure and committee members for getting Philadelphians to the polls.
“We just drive them out,” Brady said. “We had great candidates and it was worthwhile for them to come to vote.”
Rev. Greg Holston, executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), had no doubt that Trump and his “embrace of people who stand for white nationalism and white supremacy” was a motivating factor in Philadelphians going to the polls.
“In a city that’s 45 percent African-American, it would drive up turnout and cause us to come out and voice our concern about what this president and this administration are doing,” Holston said.
Members of POWER knocked on more doors and spoke with more voters than during any previous election, Holston said.
Groups and volunteers across the city appeared “more focused and targeted” in their pursuit to get out the vote and informing people of their rights at the polls, said Andrea Custis, president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Urban League of Philadelphia.
“We were real clear in our mission more so than before, and, I really do believe, what ignited that was what people are feeling in America right now,” Custis said.
While Democrats made gains in the state Senate and House of Representatives, it wasn’t enough to overcome Republican majorities.
Going into the election, the GOP had a 34-16 majority in the state Senate and a 121-82 majority in the state House. Half of the seats in the state Senate, which has four-year terms, and all of the seats in 203-member House of Representatives, which has two-year terms, were on the ballot.
Democrats were on track to flip at least four Republican seats in the Senate and at least 11 in the House, although some races remained too close to declare a winner as of Thursday, according to unofficial results.
The election left Philadelphia’s state Senate and House delegation firmly in Democratic hands. Local Democrats even added to their numbers: Democrat Joe Hohenstein flipped the 177th District in the state House with a win over GOP candidate Patty Pat Kozlowski; the seat had been in GOP control for decades.
Both parties claimed success in the state races.
Jason Gottesman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said the Republican-controlled Legislature will serve as a continued check on Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who won a second four-year term in the election.
Gottesman believed Trump helped drive base-Republicans and Trump-supporting Democrats to the polls across the state. He added U.S. Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, and immigration issues helped Republicans narrow the enthusiasm gap with Democrats.
But Gottesman hedged when asked whether Trump hurt or helped state Senate and House candidates, noting state candidates build their own brands and most issues are local.
“Having the president not only nationally but also having him come into Pennsylvania twice in the last half of the election cycle here was very instrumental in increasing Republican voter enthusiasm,” Gottesman said.