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The Primary Turnout Boom

A Commentary by Rhodes Cook

Thursday, January 17, 2008

One of the basic facts of American politics is that citizens will turn out to vote when they feel they have something to vote for. That was the case in 2004, when a record 122 million ballots were cast in an election that was essentially a referendum on the presidency of George W. Bush. And that has been the case again so far this year, as the nation begins the process of selecting a successor to one of its most controversial presidents ever.

Already turnout records (measured here in terms of actual votes cast) have been smashed in Iowa and New Hampshire, most spectacularly by the Democrats but also by the Republicans as well. And it is likely that the all-time high for a primary season of 35 million votes cast, set back in 1988, will be surpassed this year by millions and millions of votes.

Like 1988, this year features an open presidential race with no incumbent on the ballot. Like 1988, both parties have different winners emerging from Iowa and New Hampshire. And like 1988, there is a huge Super Tuesday votefest that lies dead ahead early in the nominating process. But there is a significant difference this time than two decades ago. Then, Super Tuesday was a Southern-oriented event. This year's vote on Feb. 5 is larger and much more national in scope, with 15 primaries plus an array of caucuses scheduled from Massachusetts to California.

There is no question that the dramatically "front-loaded" 2008 nominating process is one that many in the political community love to hate. But by giving so many states the unprecedented opportunity to vote within the opening weeks of the primary season, it offers much of the country the chance to have a meaningful voice in the process that it has rarely if ever had. Vote-rich states such as California, Florida, New York and Illinois, this year will not just be big prizes in the general election but in the nominating process as well.

Figure 1. Battle of the Ballots: Primary Turnouts by Party Since 1972

Since the current primary-dominated era of presidential nominations began in 1972, more primary votes have been cast in the Democratic than the Republican contests in all but two elections, 1996 and 2000. Part of this is due to the lingering Democratic advantage in party registration in much of the country, as well as the Democrats' penchant for high gusto nominating contests.


Number of


Votes Cast (in millions)


Major Candidates


















McGovern, Humphrey, Wallace










Carter, Brown, Wallace


Ford*, Reagan








Carter*, Kennedy


Reagan, Bush, Anderson








Mondale, Hart, Jackson










Dukakis, Jackson, Gore


Bush, Dole, Robertson








Clinton, Brown, Tsongas


Bush*, Buchanan










Dole, Buchanan, Forbes








Gore, Bradley


G.W. Bush, McCain








Kerry, Edwards


G.W. Bush*


Note: In this chart, the number of primaries includes the District of Columbia. The aggregate vote totals include Democratic and Republican presidential primaries only, and do not include third-party or nonbinding all-party primaries, where the candidates from all parties appear on a single ballot. California and Washington had such contests in 2000 in addition to the Democratic and Republican primaries. The aggregate nationwide vote for the individual parties does not always add to the total vote due to rounding. An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president. BOLD type indicates the high number of votes cast in each category.

Source: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press).

The unique nature of both races this year--with an African-American and female candidate seeking to make history on the Democratic side and an unusually fluid race on the Republican side--helped to drive turnout sky high in Iowa and New Hampshire. The combined two-party total of nearly 360,000 caucus voters in Iowa was half again as large as the state's previous high. The combined total of more than 525,000 primary votes cast this year in New Hampshire was roughly one-third higher than the state's previous record.

In a party used to tapping heirs apparent, the wide open nature of the Republican race is a story in itself. But the greater energy thus far has clearly been on the Democratic side, where the historic, well-financed candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have raised passions to a level rarely seen in the primary process. In the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic turnout was twice as large as the Republican--an estimated 239,000 voters to 119,000. In New Hampshire, the number of votes cast on the Democratic side was 20 percent larger than on the GOP side--288,000 to 239,000.

While the huge turnouts would appear to be a big plus for the Democrats, they may not necessarily be a favorable harbinger for the party in November. The nationwide primary record for the Democrats of 23 million votes was set in 1988, a year the party went on to lose the presidential race. The primary record for the Republicans of 17.2 million votes was set in 2000, a year the GOP went on to win the White House (albeit narrowly).

In short, when it comes to presidential primaries, high voter involvement can have either a positive or a negative connotation depending on the tenor of the party's nominating campaign.

The Democrats in particular have had a number of "negative" high turnouts, where friction between various wings of the party produced substantial voter interest but a badly scarred nominee with little chance of winning the general election.

It happened in 1972, when the controversial anti-Vietnam War campaign of George McGovern barely prevailed over more moderate elements in the party. It happened again in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale could not shake off primary challenges from Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. And to a degree, it happened a third time in 1988 when Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and Jackson kept fighting weeks beyond that year's large Super Tuesday vote before Dukakis finally nailed down the Democratic nomination.

In contrast, the 2000 Republican contest between Bush and McCain arguably produced a positive turnout surge. The two candidates battled across the February calendar that year and into March, setting GOP primary turnout records in far-flung contests from New York to California. Yet in spite of the intensity of that campaign, it ended amicably enough on Super Tuesday. McCain abandoned his candidacy in favor of Bush, and the Republicans marched united into a fall campaign which they ultimately won.

Figure 2. 2008 Presidential Primaries and Caucuses: Boffo Start at the Ballot Box

Democrats have won the battle of the ballots in the early going, attracting appreciably more voters than the Republicans in both Iowa and New Hampshire. But in each state, the GOP joined the Democrats in breaking their party's previous turnout record.






'08 Turnout

Previous High

'08 Gain over Previous High


'08 Turnout

Previous High

'08 Gain over Previous High


Iowa Caucuses


126,000 ('88)




108,838 ('88)



New Hampshire Primary


219,787 ('04)




238,206 ('00)



Note: The 2008 voter turnout totals are indicated in BOLD type. The Iowa Democratic totals are based on estimates. The New Hampshire returns for 2008 are based on nearly complete but unofficial returns.

Source: For past turnout figures, Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press); for this year's totals, the web sites of the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties, and the New Hampshire secretary of state.

Thus far, this year's hefty Democratic primary and caucus numbers can be seen as a positive surge spurred by the historic nature of the Clinton and Obama candidacies. In New Hampshire, the number of primary ballots cast was up more than 30 percent than in 2004, with the heightened voter interest evident in Clinton and Obama strongholds alike.

In the college town of Hanover, for instance, Obama won by a margin of more than 2 to 1, with turnout almost 40 percent higher than in the Democratic primary four years ago. In the town of Salem, perched along the state's southern border with Massachusetts, Clinton prevailed by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, with turnout up 33 percent from 2004.

Thus far, the two leading Democratic candidates have fanned voter interest largely among different parts of the Democratic constituency--Clinton among women, Obama among younger voters. But now, their campaigns are moving to states where the two candidates must be in direct, hard-fought competition for the same voters--most notably, African-Americans.

Democratic turnouts almost certainly will remain high in the plethora of primaries immediately ahead. But it will be up to Clinton, Obama and their supporters to decide whether the nature of their contest remains basically positive or shifts to the shrill and negative. That is the Democrats' unique challenge this primary season--to remain a party united. And how the candidates and their campaigns meet that challenge could very well make the difference this fall between a Democratic presidential victory, or a third consecutive defeat.

Figure 3. High Turnouts for the Primaries Ahead

Both parties set turnout records in Iowa and New Hampshire, in terms of the number of voters participating. Below are the totals each party would have to top to establish new turnout highs in leading primary states through Super Tuesday (Feb. 5). Most of the Republican highs in these states were set during the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and John McCain. The Democratic highs in the same states were generally set much earlier.


High Primary Turnouts


High Turnout (and winner)


'08 Date







Jan. 15






South Carolina

Jan. 19 (R), 26 (D)





'00-G.W. Bush


Jan. 29






"Super Tuesday"



Feb. 5





'00-G.W. Bush

New York

Feb. 5





'00-G.W. Bush


Feb. 5







Feb. 5





'00-G.W. Bush

New Jersey

Feb. 5







Source: Guide to U.S. Elections (CQ Press) and Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ

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