Primary Turnout Claims Turn Out To Be Half-Baked

Donald Lambro
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Posted: May 16, 2008 12:01 AM
Primary Turnout Claims Turn Out To Be Half-Baked

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.

It seems that years in the political wilderness tend to produce higher turnout rates. "Since 1972, the out-of-power party has had higher turnout in the primaries in every election except for 1980," according to a recent GOP analysis of primary history. In 1980, though, the Republicans didn't need a high primary turnout to help them. Ronald Reagan was their candidate and Jimmy Carter's failed presidency was as dead as a doornail before the election had begun.

About the time the DNC's memo was being circulated, a study by two academics ripped the Democrats' specious claims asunder. "Our findings show that no matter which party has the edge in nomination contest turnout, there is no resultant advantage in the general election for that party," writes Leonard Williams, a political science professor at Indiana's Manchester College, and Neil Wollman, a senior fellow at Bentley College in Massachusetts.

Going back several decades, the learned duo found no partisan advantage between primary turnout and the outcome in a general election, a rule that "holds true regardless of the region of the country examined and regardless of the time period studied."

"We are not trying to make any prediction about what will happen this year. What we are trying to do is test the conventional wisdom that we've seen in a number of news accounts that higher turnout for the Democrats is an indicator that they will win in the fall," Williams told me. "Our study shows, well, maybe, but don't get your hopes up. There is no necessary relationship between the two." he said.

The DNC also points to the estimated 3.5 million new voters recently registered, including voters who "are changing their party registration to participate in the Democratic primaries and caucuses" as further evidence of their party's growing strength. But Gans says, "I don't trust that figure. I don't know what it means in terms of population growth and a whole series of other things" that won't be clear until later in the year.

It was once believed that higher voter registration and turnout was bad for Republicans and good for Democrats, but that superstition has been disproved as well.

Still, Gans cautions that "there is a correlation" between recessions, the belief that the country is on the wrong track, and election turnout. With skyrocketing gas prices and higher food costs, "I would be shocked if we did not have a higher turnout this fall," he said.