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After Trio of Primaries, a Cloudy View of 2010 Midterms

In a year when politicians and analysts want a grasp on what, by most accounts, is a volatile electorate, this past Tuesday’s primaries in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina provided a chance to read the tea leaves. Alas, those looking for clear signs probably came away unhappy.

Indiana, where there is an open Senate seat as Democrat Evan Bayh is resigning, saw the highest turnout for a Republican senatorial primary in the last decade, but that’s hardly an earth-shaking statistic.

And viewed through Patchwork Nation’s 12 community types, the “message” from Tuesday doesn’t get clearer, it gets foggier. Solid county turnout numbers are not yet available from Indiana. But the data from Ohio and North Carolina doesn’t show much in the way of voter interest in any type of place in particular.

Whether the issue was high unemployment or foreclosures or general disdain for Washington, it didn’t seem like voters were stirred to great action.

One thing these results may have revealed. Despite all the talk about angry voters, apathy may be the more dominant emotion at least early in 2010.

Buckeye boredom?

Take Ohio, a state where there is a contested governor’s race and an open U.S. senate seat. Turnout for the state was about 22 percent. That number was low in part because there weren’t a lot of intraparty fights. But that fact that there were so few challenges within the parties suggests that the true voter desire for some change was somewhat limited there.

The wealthy suburban Monied Burb counties, places that on the whole tend to switch their votes between the parties, were not particularly motivated to vote. In Ohio, they are big parts of the metro areas around Cleveland and Columbus and they will be important in the fall, but their primary vote hardly symbolized anger. In three of the 12 counties, turnout broke 30 percent. In three others it didn’t reach 21 percent.

Any turnout didn’t spike in any other community type either.

Minority Central in North Carolina

In North Carolina turnout was even lower, only about 14 percent of registered voters bothered to come out to the polls.

“If voters are angry at Washington and ready to throw incumbents out of office, they certainly didn’t show it in North Carolina’s primary elections on Tuesday,” wrote Rob Holliday, a producer-reporter with UNC-TV a PBS outlet in the state’s Research Triangle area. “Seven of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House members were on the ballot Tuesday and all of them won handily. Most of North Carolina’s congressional Republicans are conservative enough in the minds of the people they represent. The state didn’t see any of the party infighting that has marked senatorial races in Florida and Arizona.”

Looking at the North Carolina vote through Patchwork Nation’s county types, however, a few numbers are worth noting. While much has been made of voter anger and engagement on the conservative side, there appears to have been an opposite trend – at least slightly – in North Carolina.

North Carolina holds 28 Minority Central counties – those are places with below-average incomes and higher than average African-American or Native American populations. On Tuesday, 17 of those counties saw voter turnout numbers higher than the state average – above 20 percent of those registered. The beneficiaries in most cases were Democratic candidates.

In other words, while overall there was very low voter turnout, it seems that more liberal voters in less-wealthy, higher-percentage minority counties were engaged in Tuesday’s primary than elsewhere. What does that mean for fall? It’s way too early to say anything for certain, but at the very least it suggests a voter trend that perhaps is being overlooked.

The Tea Party Impact

Primaries in three states is hardly a measure of a movement’s strength, but in Tuesday’s results there are some reasons to at least question the strength of the tea party movement that has garnered so much attention.

Until we have all the official turnout numbers from the Indiana primary races it will be hard to judge their impact. But the group arguably played a role in particular in two races in Indiana – the Republican primary votes for the open Senate seat and the 5th Congressional District. Neither of the Republican winners in those races received even 40 percent of the vote.

Dan Coats received 39 percent of the vote for the Senate seat and Rep. Dan Burton received 30 percent of the vote for his House seat. And both faced multiple opponents – Coats had four challengers and Burton had six.

The sheer number of opponents, however, meant the anti-establishment Republican vote was split. As we noted on Monday, the open grassroots nature of tea party groups may mean it’s hard for them to organize around a common goal or candidate.

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