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Why Democrats (probably) shouldn't worry about record Republican primary turnout

The Republican primaries have been drawing record high turnout. Should Democrats be worried?
The Republican primaries have been drawing record high turnout. Should Democrats be worried?
Joe Raedle/Getty

More Republicans have voted in the first several primaries than ever before, while turnout for Democrats has dropped far below what the party saw in 2008.

Participation is down this year for Democrats by about 23 percent, or around 150,000 votes, through the first three states. Meanwhile, every Republican state to vote has seen record-breaking turnout totals.

That's led to a good deal of hand-wringing among liberals. "The overall Democratic turnout for the early races should concern anyone in the party who has at least one eye trained on the November election," writes the Burlington Free Press.

But is it really bad news for Democrats?

Experts say Democrats probably shouldn't worry too much about what the primary turnout totals mean for their odds in a general election. The disparity is more likely a result of some trends we've known about for a long time, rather than a revelation that indicates some new Republican advantage.

"I don't think it means anything for the general election. I don't think the primary turnout is really predictive of what's going to happen," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Why some commentators think the low turnout is a big problem for the Democrats

There are some strong arguments being made that the Republican Party's turnout advantage in the primaries really could spell a major problem for the Democrats in the general election.

The case is fairly straightforward: Given that there are very few independents whose votes are truly up for grabs, the race will largely hinge on the extent to which the parties' bases can be mobilized on Election Day. Participation in the primaries seems like a logical way to gauge which base will be more energized come November.

"The Democrats are not happy campers right now. If Iowa and New Hampshire really are bellwether states, then the trend suggests that the Democrats are going to be dogged with reduced turnout for the rest of the primary season," Moe Lane wrote at RedState after the New Hampshire primary. "The Democrats won New Hampshire and Iowa in 2008 and 2012. How do they expect to win them in 2016 if their voters won’t show up?"

Similar arguments have been advanced by the Washington Examiner's Michael Barone, who says the turnout numbers suggest a "shrinking" of the Democratic coalition compared to an expansion on the Republican side.

One of many problems with this theory: Democrats are just not primed for primaries

There are a few major problems, however, in trying to use turnout in the primaries to extrapolate what will happen in the general election.

The first is historical. Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida and a voter turnout guru, notes that in 2000 the Republican primary turnout ran ahead of that for Democrats (by around 3 million votes), and yet Al Gore won the popular vote over George Bush.

Over at RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende adds that 1988 saw the second-highest Democratic primary turnout ever. But Republican George H.W. Bush went on to win the general election anyway.

Another big reason not to overanalyze the primary data: The Republican coalition is primed to participate in these early contests in a way the Democratic coalition isn't.

Republican voters tend to be better-educated, wealthier, older white people, McDonald said. This demographic votes with much greater frequency in midterm and congressional elections than the Democratic coalition, which is one reason Democrats have held on to the presidency while losing other branches of government. That dynamic limits the number of Democratic voters who show up to the primaries as well, McDonald said.

Even record primary turnouts aren't all that impressive

Then there's the fact that — compared with the general election — just not that many people are participating in even the record-breaking primaries.

In 2012, nearly 1 million people in Nevada voted in the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Last night's Republican primary did see voter turnout increase from previous primaries — but just from 33,000 voters to 75,000.

"On the one hand, it's a big increase," says Kondik, of the Center for Politics. "On the other hand, it's not that many people total."

One possible benefit of higher turnout in the primary is that Republicans get more information about their voters — information they can use on Election Day through mailers and phone calls. But even that is unlikely to be too much of a boost to Republicans: The voters who show up for the primaries are probably going to also show up for the general election without much prodding.

Then there are other factors that could be accounting for the turnout gap: an unusually crowded Republican field, the volatile rise of Donald Trump, liberal fatigue with what may amount essentially to a third term for President Obama. Unfortunately, it may tell us very little about what may happen in November.

"I don't think this is a strong signal either way," McDonald said. "We'll have to wait and see."