Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Tuesday’s top-ticket races for Pennsylvania governor and senator were never expected to be close ties. Without a sense of urgency, conventional wisdom holds that Philly voters would have stayed home en masse. In the competitive 2014 midterm gubernatorial election, only 37 percent of registered voters bothered to show up at the city polls at all.

But amid torrents of rain yesterday, the city saw a stunning 51 percent voter turnout, according to preliminary returns.

The final election returns data hasn’t been released yet, but according to poll workers and Democratic leaders on the ground Tuesday, the election fever was strong.

Why? The Trump effect. Duh, they say.

In University City and West Philadelphia, five of the divisions in the 27th Ward sit on Penn’s campus, where turnout in anything other than a presidential election is routinely lackluster. College students at the geographically diverse Ivy school don’t vote in state and local elections, the thinking goes. But on Tuesday, ward leader Carol Jenkins said turnout was feverish. The polling place at Houston Hall looks to have had nearly 900 voters cast ballots the gubernatorial and senate races. That’s out of over 8,000 votes cast in the ward as a whole.

“Without a doubt it’s the Trump effect,” Jenkins told Billy Penn. “What other explanation is there?”

That conviction was echoed among other party leaders and Democratic voters in neighborhoods across the city, who described a take-nothing-for-granted, don’t-trust-the-polls sense of urgency: “There were loads of millennials and first-time voters coming out,” Jenkins added.

Some of them, she said, “didn’t know who was on the ballot — they were just coming out to vote.”

Every ward in the city voted overwhelmingly to reelect Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey. Their GOP rivals failed to gain the majority vote in even the most conservative regions of Northeast Philly, where some voters clearly split their tickets when it came to contested Pa. House races.

Northwest Philadelphia’s 9th Ward boasts one of the routinely highest voter turnouts in the city, regardless of the election year. Ward leader and state Rep. Chris Rabb said he hadn’t seen the lines long since the 2008 presidential election.

“It’s a repudiation of the awfulness that is 45,” Rabb said. “I also believe that there’s no substitute to grassroots organizing and meaningful collaboration.”

Voters here didn’t just come out to vote for the top-ticket races, either. Rabb ran unopposed for his 200th legislative Pa. House seat, after surviving a bitterly contested primary, and received nearly as many votes as the governor’s race, unofficial returns show.

Many Democrats say they were reminded that only a razor-thin margin sent Pennsylvania to Donald Trump in the 2016 election — less than 45,000 votes across the state. If 27 existing registered voters in each of the city’s precincts hadn’t stayed home on that day, the state might well have gone Democrat.

Some expressed confidence that Tuesday’s showing could be a sign of things to come in 2020.

“It’s a good reminder,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed of Bellevue Strategies, “that Philadelphia turnout has always been a reliable bellwether for statewide elections.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...