In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: exploring the relationship between voter turnout in the primary elections and general election. This is The Two Minute Drill for April 29, 2016.
Donald Trump has been touting Republican primary turnout as evidence of his electability in the general election. “[T]he Democrats are down 35 percent,” Trump said, “whereas the Republicans are up over 70 percent.” Here, Trump has his facts right. Republicans are trouncing Democrats in terms of primary voter turnout. But is this a precursor for a Republican rout in November? Does voter turnout in primary elections correlate with voter turnout in the general election?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
On paper, the high voter turnout throughout the primary process is good news for Republicans seeking to motivate their supporters to turn out this November. Overall, Republicans have gotten millions more people to cast primary season votes than Democrats, who have seen a 19.23 percent decline in the number of votes since 2008 (the last contested convention).
Some commentators have argued that Democrats should be nervous. From the Huffington Post:
[L]ousy primary turnout spells big trouble for the general election . . . Democratic Party elites shouldn’t be high-fifing each other. They should be very, very worried. In primary after primary cycle, Democratic voters just aren’t showing up.
This argument, however, is false. Republicans shouldn’t be celebrating their high voter turnout. Democrats shouldn’t be worried about low voter turnout. There is simply no correlation between primary turnout and wins in the fall.
In 2012, for example, only 9.5 percent of the GOP voting age population turned out to vote for Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries, down from 10.7 percent turnout in 2008. The low turnout may have been correlated by Mitt Romney being a weak and uninspiring candidate, but it certainly wasn’t caused by it. Rather, the more likely explanation was that the 2012 Republican primaries weren’t particularly close. Numerous not-Romneys (including, for a short time, Donald Trump) emerged over the course of the presidential campaign. But Romney locked up the establishment backing early, and was the presumptive nominee by early March. When the dust settled and the campaign was over, Romney ended up winning 42 state primary contests, and nearly 1,300 more delegates and 6 million more votes than the second-place finisher (Rick Santorum).
A similar dynamic is playing out this year on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton may not be a particularly inspiring candidate. But she is dominating in the delegate count (even without counting Superdelegates) and is the prohibitive favorite to lock up the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, however, a wild primary featuring a fight between a reality television star and a party establishment desperately trying to deny him a majority of pledged delegates has driven massive interest from Republican voters.
That has led to impassioned disputes and close contests with multiple candidates vying for the vote. Thus, as Harry Enten noted in FiveThirtyEight, the high voter turnout is merely “an indication of the competitiveness of a primary contest, not of what will happen in the general election.” While it is true that Bernie Sanders has mounted a (surprisingly) impressive challenge to the Clinton orthodoxy, there is no denying that the GOP primary has been, and continues to be, more competitive.
There are examples to support Trump’s point. In 2008, for example, very high Democratic turnout preceded a Democratic victory in the November general election. But there are as many instances when the reverse happened. In 1988, Democrats had a much higher primary turnout than Republicans – 17.0 percent of the voting age Democratic population versus 9.1 percent of the voting age Republican population. But that didn’t matter in the general election, where the Republican, George H.W. Bush, handily defeated the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, by nearly 8 points (53.4% to 45.6%).
In other words, there is no relationship at all.
Word Count: 538 (bust)
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. Donald Trump is chasing the magic number of 1,237 delegates to lock up the Republican nomination and avoid a contested convention in July. To get to 1,237, he needs to walk a tightrope. But this is how he could do it. Read the Column for April 26, 2016.