Signs of civic engagement have been rising since last November. New grassroots political groups have been formed, hundreds of people have expressed interest in running for committee seats and candidate forums for women have been packed.
Tomorrow, though, little of it will likely matter. Victories for Democrats are assumed a given in the District Attorney and City Controller’s races, and no Congressional or state Assembly races are being held. Any sort of noticeable resistance brewing in Philly’s first general election since Donald Trump became president is unexpected.
“There aren’t the sort of marquee races there were in the springtime in the Controller’s race and the DA’s race,” said Committee of Seventy President and CEO David Thornburgh. “Whatever bump there was in the spring, my hazard to guess is it would be half of that.”
Voters went to the polls in greater numbers than in previous years in the primary, propelling Rebecca Rhynhart and Larry Krasner to victories in the Democratic City Controller and District Attorney races, respectively. In absolute terms, the turnout — about 17 percent — was still abysmal.
But compared to previous elections for these municipal races, the difference was substantial. In 2009, the last time there was a competitive DA primary, turnout was about 12 percent. In 2005, it was 14 percent.
Past results indicate the chances of Tuesday’s turnout even surpassing what Philadelphia saw in the spring is minimal.
In presidential and gubernatorial elections, significantly more people vote in the general election than in the primary. Last year, for instance, almost twice as many Philadelphians voted in November than did in the April primary.
That hasn’t been the case with these recent competitive municipal elections. In 2009, the DA primary drew about 113,000 voters. The general election drew 123,000. The increase wasn’t much higher for City Controller: 97,000 versus 117,000. Even in the higher profile 2015 mayoral race, about 230,000 people voted in the primary and in the general election.
So the question for gauging the Trump resistance, at least for Tuesday, might be whether voters show up in the same number as they did in the spring. About 160,000 votes are needed to match to primary numbers for the DA’s race and 145,000 for the City Controller.
Meanwhile, candidates are already talking about mounting challenges for seats in the General Assembly next year, and Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey are facing what will likely be difficult reelection battles. That’s when we’ll be able to better gauge whether the growing signs of voter engagement develop into something concrete.
“This is a little bit of the lull,” Thornburgh said, “before a larger storm in 2018.”