Credit: From left, Phil Andrews, Doug Duncan and Ike Leggett

Ever since the race for county executive got underway more than 18 months ago, the change in the scheduling of the primary election – to June from the traditional September date – has loomed as a potential X factor.

Now, with less than 24 hours until the polls open on Primary Day, the percentage of the Montgomery County Democratic electorate that actually shows up to vote is indeed likely to play a major role in outcome of the county executive contest, along with numerous down-ballot races.

In 2010, when the last September primary was held, there was a 26 percent turnout among eligible Democrats in Montgomery County — even though there was no competitive race for county executive nor any serious faceoff for statewide office to draw voters.

This year – with the primary moved ahead to comply with a federal law intended to ensure that military voters overseas have sufficient time to receive and return absentee ballots for the general election – there is a hotly contested race for county executive among incumbent Ike Leggett and challengers Doug Duncan and Phil Andrews, to say nothing of competitive contests for governor, attorney general, General Assembly and County Council.

Nonetheless, even with the turnout in the recent early voting period running well ahead of 2010, few expect the total turnout to exceed that of four years ago. In fact, there are predictions it will be lower – perhaps significantly so.

“It’s hard for me to believe that the turnout in Montgomery County on the Democratic side is going to be above 25 percent,” independent public opinion analyst Keith Haller said in an interview, adding: “There is a confluence of so many indicators that argue it is going to be less than that. I would not be dumbfounded if the numbers drop to 20 percent or lower.”

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Added Haller, who heads Bethesda-based Potomac Incorporated, “If there is a 20 percent projected turnout as compared to a 30 percent projected turnout that could have a pivotal impact on some of the major local races.”

In raw numbers, this means as few as 70,000 of the more than 354,000 Democrats registered to vote in Montgomery County could decide who holds power locally for the next four years, given that winning the primary is usually tantamount to election for county and state legislative office.

Conventional wisdom throughout the protracted county executive contest has held that Duncan benefits from a low turnout, because it is older voters who are most likely to vote – with a significant number of that group having positive recollections of his 1994-2006 tenure as county executive. By the same thinking, Leggett benefits from higher turnout, since many of the voters in this tier are newer residents who were not in the county when Duncan last appeared on a local ballot in 2002.

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As Haller explained it, if turnout “gets in the high teens or 20 percent or so, it would turn out a very older voter, and you would be leaving aside a significant number of newer voters who came into the Montgomery electorate from the two Obama presidential elections.” This group contains many minority voters who would be inclined toward Leggett as the county’s first African-American chief executive. Efforts by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, vying to become the state’s first African-American governor, to turn out these voters Tuesday could benefit Leggett, even though Leggett has remained neutral in the gubernatorial primary among Brown and two Montgomery County residents – Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur.

But complicating any turnout analysis is the presence of Andrews in the race. While he remains a longshot, as he has been throughout the contest, a number of insiders see Andrews’ thinly financed, largely volunteer effort as likely to exceed expectations. “I think that an Andrews surge becomes a surprise factor and must be reckoned with,” Haller said. “It could turn the conventional wisdom analysis upside down.”

One school of thought holds that Andrews may benefit from a lower turnout, since his budget hawk campaign has attracted a core of committed voters all but certain to go to the polls. At the same time, Andrews – although a County Council member for the past 16 years – has positioned himself as the outsider next to a current and former county executive, a profile that might appeal to the tier of younger, newer voters uneasy about the status quo.

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But there are serious doubts about how many in the latter group will turn out Tuesday.

“There have been nearly 50,000 new registered Democrats in Montgomery County since 2010,” Haller noted. “Many of these new Democrats are single women, younger and minority voters, and would most typically be inclined to vote in the next set of elections and be the target of the leading Democratic campaigns.”

But, he added, “This is a targeted cluster showing great disinterest in voting on Tuesday…no matter how much communications they are receiving, much of it digitally and through social media.” Particularly the younger voters in this group “are very uncertain about their futures, and few see state and local governments addressing these troubling economic concerns,” Haller said.

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“There just is this pall of disinterest among [this] next tier of the voting public, that is just palpable wherever you go,” he observed. “There almost seems to be an arms-length disinterest, even though the election itself is very consequential in Montgomery County.”

Contributing to the likelihood of low turnout across all tiers of the electorate in this year’s primary is what Haller described as “the absence of a burning litmus test local issue” this year – in contrast to past campaigns, when growth and development issues in the county often played such a role. The predictions of low overall turnout also come on the heels of the eight-day early voting period that ended last Thursday, in which Democratic primary turnout was up more than two and a half times over 2010.

“Ordinarily, you would connect good numbers from early voting with higher turnout,” Haller acknowledged. But he suggested the scheduling of this year’s primary – after school has closed for the summer – may have resulted in the early voting period simply cannibalizing some of the Primary Day turnout. “Because you have this vacation schedule that comes on the heels of school closings, a lot of people were rushing to vote early because they couldn’t make next Tuesday,” he noted.

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Amidst the turnout predictions, the county executive candidates continued their 11th hour efforts to reach out to voters.

Both the Leggett and Duncan campaigns, which have been running TV ads on county cable systems since last month, have expanded their outreach to more expensive advertising on Washington area broadcast stations in the closing days. Duncan went on broadcast TV Saturday, and is planning to run a total of 14 ad spots on Channel 4 and Channel 7 through tonight. Leggett went on both of these stations Thursday, with a buy of 16 ad spots running through Tuesday.

The Duncan broadcast spots focus on a familiar line of attack against Leggett – the troubled Silver Spring transit center, where Duncan was slated to begin his last full day of campaigning Monday. Leggett, meanwhile, was scheduled to start off Monday greeting voters at the Grosvenor Metro stop in North Bethesda.

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Andrews, who, unlike his rivals, has not taken to TV to advertise, was set to continue his one-on-one efforts to the end. Having boasted of visiting more than 20,000 homes in the course of the campaign, he was set to continue knocking on doors Monday, while also contacting voters by phone.