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The truth about primary voter turnout

This is what cable news pundits want you to think: Thanks to surging voter turnout in Republican primaries—and lagging Democratic turnout—the GOP is expanding their base to historic levels, which will propel their party to winning the White House.  

Unfortunately, the need for speed and campaign spin hides the truth that is publicly available in voter turnout data. Our data driven research finds that Democrats should be confident in their November coalition and Republicans shouldn’t be measuring the West Wing drapes anytime soon.  

{mosads}There actually is no historic correlation between primary turnout and general election turnout. None. The highest turnout in a Democratic primary—before the outlier of 2008—was in 1988. Gov. Michael Dukakis got killed in November. Democratic primary turnout was actually lower in 1992—two million fewer Democrats voted in the primaries that year. The drop in turnout didn’t stop Bill Clinton from winning the general election convincingly.  

Turnout data also shows Americans don’t vote in primaries because they’re excited about November. They vote in primaries when the outcome of the party nomination is in doubt. The outcome of this primary hasn’t been in doubt for most Democratic primary voters despite a hard-fought race. That’s a statement that may strike people who read campaign news every day as odd, especially given the fundraising success of the Sanders campaign. Democrats have seen Hillary Clinton as our party’s likely 2016 nominee for years and her strength is beginning to catch up to this underlying reality. Turnout is lower because there has been less suspense about the outcome. 

Higher Republican primary turnout is also no reason to think the GOP is growing their base. In zero states has the number of primary votes even come close to the number of Republican general election votes. Primary electorates and general electorates are just very different animals.  

Look at the data from New Hampshire and Virginia. In New Hampshire, the state with the highest turnout percentage so far, there were 284,120 votes in the GOP primary, but Mitt Romney received 329,918 votes in 2012. In Virginia, just over a million votes were cast in their Super Tuesday primary, but Mitt Romney won more than 1.8 million votes in the state in 2012. Again: there is no data correlation.  

Fear—far more than enthusiasm—is a huge motivating factor in many Republican voters’ minds. In a Clarity Campaign Labs satisfaction index created out of publicly available exit polls, barely 50 percent of GOP voters said they would be satisfied with the three leading candidates getting the nomination – 53 percent Rubio, 51 percent Cruz, 48 percent Trump.

Democrats on the other hand would strongly back the nominee: 78 percent would be satisfied with Secretary Hillary Clinton and 63 percent would back Sen. Bernie Sanders no matter their first choice. Smart policy and a will to win the White House drives Democrats to the polls. Gains in Republican primary turnout come from a party running scared. 

In the general election, we are confident Democrats will embrace the nominee enthusiastically, while Republicans could be fractured by a Trump candidacy.  

The balancing act between enthusiasm and fear will transfer more to independent voters that sat out the primary season. These important voters who don’t follow every twist and turn of the campaign cycle aren’t paying attention yet, but when they do they’ll find a GOP nominee that rightly scares them to the polls.

Hagner is a partner at Clarity Campaigns Lab, a firm that provides advanced modeling and analytic services to progressive organizations. Tencher is the national director of Public Affairs for MWW PR and managed the campaigns of Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). Both have been senior advisers at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton Joe Donnelly

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