New Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats

New Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats

As the final ballots are counted in New Hampshire’s 2020 primary, some are comparing impressive turnout numbers to 2008, when nearly 288,000 voters logged their preference in the Democratic race. But to appreciate what happened Tuesday night, it’s important to compare apples to apples — or in this case, elections to elections. 

Three other times in the past 24 years — once every eight years to be precise — the presidential primaries have featured an out-of-office party seeking a nominee to face an incumbent president. 2008 was a free-for-all, with both Republicans and Democrats searching for a new standard-bearer.  

But with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE firmly entrenched as the GOP’s leader, one of the biggest questions heading into Tuesday was whether Democrats and independents (and as always in a state like New Hampshire, some curious or mischievous Republicans) would demonstrate more enthusiasm than similarly positioned challengers in 1996, 2004, and 2012.

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In ’96, Republicans battled to prevent President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRahm Emanuel: 'Panic would be the adjective to describe the mood' over Sanders Do Trump and Sanders hate America? Ex-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community MORE from earning a second term. New Hampshire voters handed Clinton an easy victory on (as expected) low turnout. On the GOP side, Patrick Buchanan scored a narrow upset over Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), leaving about a half-dozen candidates in their wake. A total of 208,740 ballots were cast for Republicans. That November, Clinton was re-elected comfortably. 

Eight years later, with George W. Bush in the Oval Office, it was the Democrats’ turn to pick their nominee. 

In New Hampshire, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents John Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' MORE handing Howard Dean a second consecutive defeat, propelling Kerry into a frontrunner role he never relinquished. But while his 38-percent share was impressive, only 219,787 people voted Democratic — a lukewarm five percent jump from Republicans’ 1996 total. Kerry lost that November.

Fast-forward another eight years, and it’s once again the Democrats’ turn to protect their claim to the White House. While Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Biden, Sanders battle over Cuba, Obama Biden attacks Sanders at debate over Obama primary MORE breezed through the primaries, the GOP race witnessed several lead changes in the fall of 2011.  

Former Massachusetts Governor Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Romney: Trump administration unprepared for coronavirus outbreak Ex-Romney adviser praises economic populism MORE (R-Utah) got hot at the right time and scored a sizable New Hampshire win, netting 39.3 percent of the vote. 248,485 GOP ballots were cast — an 11.5 percent increase over Democrats’ 2004 total. Obama defeated Romney in November.

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And that brings us to this week in New Hampshire. With about 97 percent of ballots counted, Democratic candidates have received 294,707 votes — 15.7 percent higher than Republicans’ 2012 total. When the counting is completed, the jump likely will exceed 16 or 17 percent.

That is meaningful. Will it continue throughout the primary season? Who knows. Many factors contribute to voter turnout. But after a disastrous Iowa caucus, this is the jolt Democrats needed. Compared to smaller turnout bumps from 1996 to 2004, and then from 2004 to 2012, this year’s jump shows New Hampshire voters are highly invested in who becomes the Democratic nominee.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of Polis: Duke University’s Center for Politics, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.