High Primary Turnouts: Any Clues for the Fall?
A Commentary By Rhodes Cook
No matter what one thinks of this often surreal presidential primary campaign, it has been a hit at the ballot box.
Republicans have already smashed their record of 20.8 million ballots, set in 2008. Through the May 10 contests, the 2016 GOP primary turnout stands at 26.1 million and counting.
Democrats are on course to have their second-highest presidential primary turnout ever. Their record of 36.8 million votes (the high for both parties) for the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton race in 2008 is well out of reach for both Democrats and Republicans this year. But with nearly 22.2 million primary votes cast thus far in 2016, the Democrats should soon breeze past their second-highest total of nearly 23 million primary votes cast in 1988.
Put the two 2016 numbers together and the combined total of Democratic and Republican primary votes this year could very well reach an all-time high. The current total of nearly 48.3 million is within 10 million of the record 57.7 million votes cast in both parties’ primaries in 2008. And in that year, 8 million primary votes were cast in California alone (which will hold its primary this year on June 7).
The major reason for the Republican primary turnout success this year is obvious: Donald Trump. He is unique, compelling, irreverent, and “in your face” — a media “darling” who has been intriguing to voters, a nightmare for much of the Republican establishment, and befuddling to his primary opponents. There is little doubt that he has attracted hordes of voters to the Republican primaries, though there have surely been many others who have cast a GOP ballot in order to vote against him.
Trump’s emergence has tended to overshadow the Democratic contest, although Hillary Clinton has developed a winning primary coalition of women and minorities, and her long-running rival, Bernie Sanders, has built a passionate army of supporters that rivals Trump’s.
Yet even in high-turnout years such as this one, the number of primary voters has never reached even 50% of the November presidential election turnout. There are several reasons for this.
First, not every state holds a presidential primary. Since 1980, the number of primaries has stayed largely in the 35 to 40 range, with the rest of the states holding lower turnout caucuses. (Caucus results are not included in the tallies in this article because caucuses are run differently from primaries and draw a fraction of the votes that are cast in primaries.)
Second, in many of the states that hold primaries, not every registered voter can cast a ballot. In “closed” primary states, where only voters affiliated with a particular party can participate in that party’s primary, the large swath of independent voters are excluded.
And third, in most election years the nomination in at least one party is settled long before the end of the primary season. That is the case for the Republicans this year, with Trump clearing the last of his 16 rivals from the GOP race in the wake of Indiana’s May 3 primary. For all practical purposes, Trump will be running unopposed from here on out, and the GOP turnout in future primaries could very well be much more modest than if the Republican contest had remained competitive.
Still, those who do vote in the presidential primaries are often a decent cross-section of each party’s base. They tend to be the more loyal voters, while the general election tends to attract many of those who are more casual in their voting habits.
At this point, the $64,000 question is what the high turnouts in this year’s primaries might mean for the fall.
If 2008 is a guide, there very well could be a record number of voters swarming the polls in November. Eight years ago, the expansive primary turnout in the winter and spring was followed by a record presidential election turnout of 131 million voters in the fall.
But it is much harder to tell at this point whether either party would enjoy an advantage. There are few historical precedents, with this being only the fourth open election for president since the primary-dominated era in nominating politics began in the early 1970s.
In the open election of 1988, nearly 11 million more ballots were cast in the Democratic primaries than the GOP, but Republican George H.W. Bush was elected president that fall.
In the open election of 2000, fully 3 million more primary votes were cast on the GOP side, and Republican George W. Bush won the White House. But it was a weird election. Bush won the all-important electoral vote, while Democrat Al Gore took the popular vote, creating the first Electoral College “misfire” in more than a century.
Only in the open election of 2008 was there a clear correlation between the primary turnout and the November outcome. That year, 16 million more votes were cast in the Democratic primaries than the Republican ones, which proved a precursor of Democratic success that fall.
In 2016, the Republican edge in the primary vote is much smaller than the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. Coming out of the May 10 primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia, the GOP margin stands at 4 million votes and shrinking. Among the eight states left to hold their presidential primaries are deep blue California and New Jersey. And in 2008, more than 2 million more votes were cast on the Democratic than Republican side of the California ballot.
GOP turnouts were particularly impressive this year in the early weeks of the primary season. In Texas March 1, for instance, there were more than 2.8 million Republican primary votes compared to barely 1.4 million Democratic. It was a complete reversal of the 2008 primary vote, when nearly 2.9 million Texans took a Democratic ballot, while less than 1.4 million voted on the Republican side.
The GOP primary turnout advantage this year has been evident in traditional battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
But in recent weeks, Democrats have had the turnout edge in Democratic-oriented “closed” primary states such as New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Both Trump and Hillary Clinton have proven to be strong vote-getters in this year’s primaries. Clinton has won more primary votes than Trump (12.5 million to 10.7 million) and taken a higher percentage of the Democratic primary vote than Trump (56.5% to 41.2%) in the more crowded GOP field.
Trump, though, has won more primaries, 26 to Clinton’s 22.
And both candidates have built up comfortable leads over their nearest opposition in the aggregate nationwide primary vote. Clinton is running 15 percentage points ahead of Sanders on the Democratic side, while Trump is 14 points in front of runner-up Ted Cruz in the now quiet GOP race.
Trump’s showing in the primaries is in line with that of the last two Republican nominees during the competitive period of their primary campaigns. In early March 2008, John McCain had a 17-point lead in the aggregate primary vote (42% to 25%) over runner-up Mitt Romney at the point when McCain’s opposition had been whittled down to Ron Paul. In early April 2012, Romney held a 12-point lead (40% to 28%) over second-place Rick Santorum when the latter quit the Republican race.
But there are flies in the ointment for both Clinton and Trump. She has been faltering in the homestretch, losing primaries in Indiana and West Virginia to Sanders in the last two weeks. Both were states that Clinton won against Obama eight years ago. Before this month, Clinton also lost primaries in several battleground states — Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin — where independents, a key part of the November electorate, could vote.
As for Trump, he did not win a majority of the Republican primary or caucus vote until his home state of New York voted April 19. It is an indication that the Manhattan billionaire was the beneficiary of “divide and conquer” when the GOP field was larger, a tactic that would be more difficult to exploit in a two-way race in the fall.
So, what lies ahead as this year’s presidential campaign pivots from the high-turnout primaries to the general election scuffling? Without a decided partisan primary turnout advantage this year as there was for the Democrats in 2008, this author’s crystal ball looks a bit hazy. Still, there will surely be pundits six months from now who will look back at the 2016 election and say: “Oh, yes, we saw that coming in the primaries.”
Chart 1 and Table 1: Total primary votes cast, 1972-2016
|In 1972 the presidential nominating process changed dramatically, from one where nominations were decided at the national conventions to one where choices were made in the primaries. There have been few exceptions to this dynamic over the last four decades, as the number of presidential primaries have swelled to around 35 to 40 each election. Primary turnouts have tended to be highest in election years where both parties have open contests for their nominations, such as is the case this year. Overall primary turnouts have usually been lower in years when one party had an incumbent president running virtually unopposed for renomination, as was the case in 1972, 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012. In the last open election for both parties in 2008, primary turnouts reached record highs, with nearly 37 million voting in Democratic primaries, 21 million in Republican primaries, with almost 58 million combined. This year, the GOP has already set a new record of 26 million votes and counting, and by the time the primaries are completed next month, the total number of primary voters could also reach a new high.|
Notes: Presidential primary turnouts are based on results from those states (and the District of Columbia) that held presidential primaries. An asterisk (*) indicates that 2016 primary turnout numbers are through the primaries on May 10.
Sources: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2004 Nomination (CQ Press) for presidential primary turnout numbers through 2000. The 2004, 2008, and 2012 editions of America Votes (CQ Press, a division of SAGE Publications) for primary election totals from 2004 through 2012. The 2016 presidential primary results are from election websites in the primary states that have voted so far. The returns are official for all primaries except those in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as the Democratic contests in Alabama and Mississippi, all of which are nearly complete but unofficial.
Table 2: Highest total primary turnout by party and combined, ranked by year
|With a month of presidential primaries yet to go, the 2016 turnout totals are already reaching record territory. Through May 10, the Republicans have smashed their record for number of ballots cast in a single primary season by more than 5 million votes. By the time the primary season is over, the Democrats will have their second-highest number behind only the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest in 2008, which set the all-time record of 36.8 million primary votes cast. And the combined presidential primary turnout for both major parties this year could threaten the all-time record set in 2008 of nearly 57.7 million ballots cast.|
Note: An asterisk (*) denotes an incumbent president.
Sources: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2004 Nomination (CQ Press) for presidential primary turnout numbers through 2000. The 2004, 2008, and 2012 editions of America Votes (CQ Press, a division of SAGE Publications) for primary election totals since then. The 2016 presidential primary results are from election websites in the primary states that have voted so far. The returns are official for all primaries except those in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as the Democratic contests in Alabama and Mississippi, all of which are nearly complete but unofficial.
Map 1 and Table 3: 2016 primary turnout by state and compared to 2008, through May 10
|Nearly 4 million more ballots were cast in Republican presidential primaries through May 10 than in their Democratic counterparts. The pyrotechnics that Donald Trump has brought to the GOP contest have no doubt played a significant role in the more intense voter interest in the Republican primaries. Of the 30 states that held Democratic and Republican primaries through May 10 (Idaho only had a GOP primary), more votes were cast on the GOP side in 19 states, compared to 11 states where the Democrats had the turnout advantage. For what it is worth, Republicans had a primary turnout edge this year in battleground states such as Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. All of them helped Barack Obama to victory in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. However, it should be worth noting that the same states that have given Republicans a margin of nearly 4 million votes in this year’s “battle of the primary ballots” gave Democrats an advantage of more than 12 million votes in 2008.|
Notes: An asterisk (*) indicates that Idaho Democrats did not hold a presidential primary in 2016; Democratic delegates were allocated to reflect the results of a caucus process. Nebraska Democrats held a caucus to determine delegates, making the May 10 primary a “beauty contest.”
Sources: America Votes (CQ Press, a division of SAGE Publications) for the 2008 primary election totals. The 2016 presidential primary results are from election websites in the primary states that have voted so far. The returns are official for all primaries except those in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as the Democratic contests in Alabama and Mississippi, all of which are nearly complete but unofficial.
Table 4: All-time leading primary vote-getters
|By the time the 2016 presidential primary season is over, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will almost certainly be among the top four all-time leading, single-year primary vote-getters. Hillary Clinton, at 12.5 million votes through May 10, will probably finish close to the record 17.7 million votes that she drew in the Democratic primaries in 2008. Trump, who is less than 100,000 votes behind the GOP’s all-time leader in primary votes, George W. Bush in 2000, will certainly have the Republican record by the end of the month. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders should have collected more primary votes than any candidate not named Clinton, Obama, or Trump by the close of the Democratic primaries in mid-June.|
Notes: The candidates’ rankings are based on aggregate presidential primary results from states and the District of Columbia. An asterisk (*) denotes an incumbent president. A pound sign (#) indicates that Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential vote while George W. Bush took the all-important electoral vote. The at sign (@) reflects the controversial nature of the 2008 Democratic primary vote. If the vote that year is counted from all the primaries held in states and the District of Columbia — the tally that is listed above — Hillary Clinton had the higher total. But remove results from the unsanctioned Democratic primaries that year in Florida and Michigan, and Obama finished ahead with 16,847,100 primary votes to Clinton’s 16,515,604.
Sources: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2004 Nomination (CQ Press) for presidential primary vote data through 2000; various editions of America Votes (CQ Press, a division of SAGE Publications) for similar data for the primary contests in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Presidential primary results for 2016 are from state election websites and reflect contests through May 10. The returns are official for all primaries except those in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as the Democratic contests in Alabama and Mississippi, all of which are nearly complete but unofficial.
Table 5: Aggregate 2016 primary vote tally by candidate, through May 10
|Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have both shown considerable strength as vote-getters during the 2016 presidential primaries. Through the voting on May 10, Clinton had won almost two million more primary votes than Trump and a much higher share of the primary vote, both due in large part to the fact that she has been in a two-way race with Bernie Sanders while Trump has faced multiple challengers and consequently a more divided vote. On the other hand, Trump has won more primaries than Clinton and leads the second-place Republican vote-getter, Ted Cruz, by a larger margin in primary votes than Clinton leads Sanders. All candidates are listed below who have drawn at least 250,000 primary votes.|
Notes: Democrats did not hold a presidential primary in Idaho, Republicans did. The Nebraska Democratic primary, won by Hillary Clinton, was a non-binding “beauty contest.”
Source: Presidential primary results through May 10, are from state election websites. The returns are official for all primaries except those in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as the Democratic contests in Alabama and Mississippi, all of which are nearly complete but unofficial.
Rhodes Cook is a Senior Columnist at Sabato's Crystal Ball
Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.
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