Enthusiasm Gap on Display in Tuesday's Primaries

Enthusiasm Gap on Display in Tuesday's Primaries

By Sean Trende - August 5, 2010

In 2008, one of the earliest hints of how much trouble Republicans would find themselves in came on May 6 in the Indiana Democratic Presidential Primary. It wasn't because Barack Obama became de facto Democratic nominee on that date. Instead, it was because 1.2 million people voted in the Democratic primary - close to the 1.5 million who had voted for George W. Bush in Indiana in 2004.

Something like this could only happen in a traditionally red state if there was a massive "enthusiasm gap" between Republicans and Democrats. The enthusiasm gap, which is the difference between the number of voters in each party who say they are excited about casting ballots on election day, is a critical factor in election projection. It drives a good deal of turnout in elections, and it is part of what might allow Republican candidates to win in blue districts and vice versa. Sure enough, in 2008 the number of enthusiastic Democrats continued to dwarf the number of enthusiastic Republicans, and a GOP wipeout ensued.

We saw a similar effect in the primaries on Tuesday, only the parties were reversed. What makes last Tuesday's primaries particularly useful to examine is that they offer a wide cross-section of electorates. Kansas is a solidly Republican state, Missouri is a Republican-leaning swing state, and Michigan is a Democratic-leaning swing state. Also, both parties in these states have enjoyed a good mixture of competitive and non-competitive primaries over the course of the decade.

In all three states, Republican turnout, relative to Democratic turnout, increased significantly across the board compared to turnout in the rest of the decade. What follows are charts showing the number of votes cast in statewide primary elections for each party from 2002-2010. Races in which a candidate was unopposed are marked with an asterisk. If a state had primaries for both a Senate and gubernatorial race in the same cycle, the primary turnout is simply averaged (there was surprisingly little variance between the two races when this happened, even if one candidate was unopposed).

The final row is the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in each cycle, which measures which party was better at turning out its voters to the polls. An R/D ratio above one means more Republicans than Democrats turned out, while an R/D ratio below one means more Democrats turned out than Republicans.

First, consider Missouri:

The ratio of Republicans to Democrats voting on Tuesday was almost double what it typically was during the decade. In fact, the number of Republicans voting in the fairly mundane Senate primary on Tuesday was comparable to the number of Republicans who voted in the 2008 Presidential primary, and almost double the number who voted in a very uninteresting 2006 GOP Senate primary. Democratic turnout, by contrast, fell by almost a third from the 2008 Presidential primary, and was the lowest of the entire decade.

Democrats will argue that the health care referendum drove Republican turnout. Republicans would respond that this is entirely the point: GOP voters were chomping at the bit to cast a largely symbolic vote against the health care bill. It is unlikely that their enthusiasm will be diminished once they get to cast a meaningful vote.

On the other hand, Democrats were not motivated to affirm the President's signature initiative. They are unlikely to be significantly more excited to vote in the fall. People don't vote to say "thank you" - that is why turnout is typically down in times of peace and prosperity and up in times of turmoil.

Next, look at Kansas. This year there was a competitive Republican primary election for the Senate, so we might expect GOP turnout to be high. It was:

Nevertheless, 2010 saw the highest ratio of Republican-to-Democrat turnout of the decade. The raw number of Republicans voting was only higher in 2004, which was a Presidential primary year. Comparing only midterm primary elections, Democratic turnout this year was actually consistent with years where there wasn't even a contested primary held; Republican turnout on Tuesday was higher than 2002 and substantially higher than 2006.

Lastly, Michigan, a fairly blue state:

Both parties had competitive races on Tuesday, and once again the ratio of Republicans to Democrats at the polls was the highest of the decade. In fact, it was nearly double the second-highest ratio all decade. Turnout was almost double that in the 2008 GOP Presidential primary, while Democratic turnout was once again at its lowest point all decade.

The remaining tables (inset to right)track the trend for a few House races of potential interest (KS2, KS3, MO3, MO4, MI1, MI7, MI9). These are trickier to compare because incumbents so rarely receive primary opposition, because quality challengers are less frequent, and because turnout is also driven by upticket races.

But the trend is unmistakable. Thirty-five contests were measured across seven districts. There were only five times earlier in the decade where a district saw a higher ratio of Republicans to Democrats voting than in this cycle.

There are some particularly bad results for Democrats. In Missouri's Fourth District, for example, Democrat Ike Skelton drew his first primary opponent all decade. Yet the number of Democrats voting in the primary was lower than when Skelton was running unopposed. The Democrat vying to replace Bart Stupak in Michigan's First District received about half as many votes as Stupak typically received when he ran unopposed, while the Republican turnout was three times as high as it had been all decade.

Indeed, this trend has been flying under the radar all cycle. Even in states where Democratic turnout would be expected to be particularly strong this cycle due to highly competitive Democratic races, such as Arkansas, Illinois, or Pennsylvania, the same effect has been present. In each of these states, the ratio of Republicans to Democrats was higher this year than it had been in primary elections throughout the decade with one exception (Pennsylvania in 2004, where the Specter/Toomey primary drove Republican turnout through the roof). In Illinois, more Republicans voted in the primary this year than in any year save 2002; Democratic turnout was the lowest all decade.

What makes the turnout on Tuesday especially noteworthy is its proximity to the general election. Despite last year's high Republican turnout in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections, and in the Massachusetts special election in Janary, Democrats believed they had plenty of time to rally their troops and that once the health care debate was behind them, the economy was improving, and the campaigns got under way, they would be able to sufficiently neutralize the enthusiasm gap. But it is now less than 100 days to Election Day, and after Tuesday's vote it appears the enthusiasm gap remains as large as ever.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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