WASHINGTON -- Democrats are claiming that high voter turnout in their primaries is proof positive that they'll win the White House in November.
It is a familiar claim, made by one party or the other, that pops up every four years, but it contains not a morsel of truth. Many studies show no correlation between party primary participation and general election results.
Nevertheless, in a memorandum to its supporters and the news media, the Democratic National Committee is crowing, "(R)ecord turnout during the primaries has been transformational for the Democratic Party as record numbers of new voters are being registered."
In this equation, new primary voters equal more general election votes. "Democrats are energized all across the country and ... if Democrats show up and talk about our values, we will win," the memo asserts.
No one knows more about turnout than Curt Gans, the veteran voter analyst who heads the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. So when I asked him if the Democrats' claims had merit, he explained that it is wrong to conclude that a party's higher primary turnout will result in victory at the ballot box in the election.
"It is true that turnout has been extraordinary this primary season, particularly in the Democratic party, but also in the Republican party," Gans told me. As of last week, "24 states that have had primaries have had record turnout, 22 Democratic primaries have set records and 12 Republican primaries have set records."
"But there is not necessarily a correlation between primary turnout and general election turnout," he continued. "There is no rule on this. You can have high turnout in the primaries and still lose."
Look what happened to the Democrats when George McGovern won the nomination in 1972 on a wave of anti-war fervor that produced record primary turnout in his party. The South Dakota senator was crushed in an electoral landslide by President Nixon, and carried only one state. Republican analysts who are closely studying this year's voter turnout statistics point to similar cases in which the party with the highest primary turnout has been trounced in the election.
In 1988, for instance, after eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, frustrated Democrats flocked to the primaries, with a turnout rate that was twice that of Republicans. But Vice President George H. W. Bush easily defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis.
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