How Much Does Voter Turnout Matter?

How Much Does Voter Turnout Matter?

By Sean Trende - February 1, 2012

Four elections into the GOP nominating process, there's a narrative developing about the level of enthusiasm among the electorate. Here's Mike Smithson from London's Telegraph:

"The Florida primary overnight has produced the thumping victory for Mitt Romney that the polls were predicting. But what might be worrying GOP strategists is that turnout was down sharply compared to four years ago. Florida will be one of the critical battlegrounds in November and the last thing the party wants is for Republican-inclined voters to be less enthusiastic.”

But does low turnout in a presidential primary really suggest a weak showing in the fall? Does higher turnout predict a strong one?

There are several ways to look at this, but here’s the simplest one: The following table shows total turnout in the various presidential primaries from 1972 through 2008 (I’ve eliminated races where incumbent presidents were more or less unopposed):

A few things stand out. First, 2008 was a record-breaking year for both parties. Yet most conservatives will tell you that conservative enthusiasm was down that year, especially without a strong candidate to rally around.

Second, and more importantly, note the second highest turnout in history. That was the Democratic primary in 1988 -- the all-time record holder until the Democrats in 2008. Turnout that year is still higher than any Republican primary on record. As you may recall, that didn’t translate into a particularly good result for Democrats.

In fact, turnout was actually down about 10 percent from 1988 to 1992, when Democrats won the presidency.

There are plenty of other tidbits we can examine: Republican turnout was up substantially in 1992 and 1996, and yet the Republican share of the two-party vote declined. No one remembers Bob Dole firing up the GOP base. In 2000, Republican primary turnout exceeded Democratic primary turnout for the first time ever, and yet Democrats won the popular vote. In 2004, Democratic participation in primaries was lower than at any time since the 1970s, and yet John Kerry came within a few points of winning the presidency.

So I don’t think there’s much evidence that high turnout in presidential primaries produces a good result in the general election.

What, then, are we to make of those surges? I think what we’ve seen -- and why turnout is down this year -- is that participation in presidential primaries is driven by close contests with multiple candidates vying for the vote. The 1988 and 1992 Democratic fields weren’t particularly strong, but they featured a high number of second- and third- tier candidates.

In 1988, for example, Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon all received at least 1 million votes. In 1992, Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown achieved the same feat. In 2008, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul also were million-vote-getters.

By contrast, races such as the Democratic primary in 2000, where there were only two candidates and the outcome was settled early, resulted in lower turnout. If Barack Obama had won New Hampshire in ’08, I think that race also would have concluded early, and Democratic turnout would not have spiked to the degree it did.

Florida in particular is illustrative of how the number of participants can help drive the total outcome. The 2008 primary there was high-stakes poker, as Romney fought to stop McCain’s nomination. At the same time, Rudy Giuliani had practically taken up residence in the state, and had placed all his chips on the table in an attempt to win. Meanwhile, Huckabee was trying to draw away votes in the northern part of the state, while Ron Paul was being Ron Paul. In short, there were five serious candidates making plays in Florida, three of whom saw the race as a “must-win.”

This year, there were only four candidates in the game to start with, and two basically took a pass. Rick Santorum and Paul were already in Nevada when voting closed. Newt Gingrich made a strong attempt in Florida but didn’t devote the resources that Romney or Giuliani did four years earlier -- after all, he sees a long game coming and he’s focused on small states and caucuses. Romney was the only serious candidate who made a play for Florida because it really was something of a “must-win” for him. This, I think, is why turnout was down.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Romney will be a weak candidate who might lose in the fall. But primary turnout doesn’t appear to be part of it. 

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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