Democratic voter turnout way down in primaries

by: Chris Bowers

Wed May 05, 2010 at 12:45

Hotline on Call has some sobering numbers on Democratic turnout:

Just 663K OH voters cast ballots in the competitive primary between LG Lee Fisher (D) and Sec/State Jennifer Brunner (D). That number is lower than the 872K voters who turned out in '06, when neither Gov. Ted Strickland (D) nor Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) faced primary opponents.

Only 425K voters turned out to pick a nominee against Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). The 14.4% turnout was smaller than the 444K voters -- or 18% of all registered Dem voters -- who turned out in '04, when Gov. Mike Easley (D) faced only a gadfly candidate in his bid to be renominated for a second term.

And in IN, just 204K Hoosiers voted for Dem House candidates, far fewer than the 357K who turned out in '02 and the 304K who turned out in '06.

By contrast, GOP turnout was up almost across the board. 373K people voted in Burr's uncompetitive primary, nearly 9% higher than the 343K who voted in the equally non-competitive primary in '04. Turnout in House races in IN rose 14.6% from '06, fueled by the competitive Senate primary, which attracted 550K voters. And 728K voters cast ballots for a GOP Sec/State nominee in Ohio, the highest-ranking statewide election with a primary; in '06, just 444K voters cast ballots in that race.

I have repeatedly argued that Democrats would lose a net 2% of the national vote from 2008 to 2010 just because of the age demographics of the two major coalitions (Democrats are skewing  younger and younger, and young people don't vote in midterms).  However, these turnout figures paint a picture significantly worse than just the expected 2% drop-off.  This is more than just a demographic problem based on age--there really is a meaningful enthusiasm gap.

And yet, despite this, there are still no public, national polls looking for answers on why Democratic turnout is so low.   All it would take would be to ask a single, open-ended question to 500 people who voted in 2008, but self-identify as unlikely to vote in 2010, "why don't you intend on voting?" Everyone has theories, but those theories lack empirical supporting evidence and invariably little more than "I speak for all unlikely voters, and they are unhappy for the exact same reasons I am."

Per the article linked above, the DNC is promising to spend $30M on GOTV efforts this year.  Surely, they could spend a little of that money on a transparent, representative, scientifically random, poll of unlikely voters of the sort I listed above.  A lot of people are going to be working to try and improve turnout this year, and our jobs would be a lot easier if we actually knew what was motivating unlikely voters.

Chris Bowers :: Democratic voter turnout way down in primaries

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No mystery. (4.00 / 2)
Iraq, Afghanistan, the Banks: all "still there".

I guess my response to that is... (0.00 / 0)
Exactly what will a Republican majority in Congress do to make those things better?  At least Democrats are trying to make progress on all of these issues and have been serious about governing.

[ Parent ]
irrelevant (4.00 / 4)
That's a persuasion argument, something that can appeal to people who are voting. The problem for Democrats is the people who aren't going to vote. "At least Democrats are trying" is obviously not working.

As as wise man once said, "There is no try, do -- or do not." That sage advice seems to be heeded by voters who would rather punish the party in charge for failing than award effort points.

Here's a short play to demonstrate:

DEMOCRAT: Knock Knock

VOTER: Can I help you

{pitch and angry angry response}

DEMOCRAT: Exactly what will a Republican majority in Congress do to make those things better?  At least Democrats are trying to make progress on all of these issues and have been serious about governing.

VOTER: Slams door, laughing

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
The non-voting #'s from Massachusetts were sobering (4.00 / 5)
Brown managed to attract just slightly more votes that McCain got in the 2008 election (105.8% of McCain's vote or 63,823* more votes.) But Coakley was only able to attract 56.0% of the votes Obama received in 2008 -- thats 832,401 fewer votes. Or to put it another way, 3% of the 2008 Democratic electorate switched to the GOP from the Dems -- but 44% of the 2008 Democratic electorate stayed home rather than vote for the Democrat again

I suspect that one of the factors is a lot of rank-and-file disillusionment among union members, who are some of the more reliable mid-term voters.  

[ Parent ]
what I'd like to see (0.00 / 0)
There was actually a lot of survey work that came about looking at 1994. I was first starting out during 1996/98 and was fortunate enough to fairly thoroughly trained.

Of course, I was a step removed from seeing the raw data, but the lessons taught to me centered around campaign tactics. I got to see lots of pretty charts and hear great focus group anecdotes about how (esp. women, often single) could be turned out to vote if only asked.

One thing I didn't learn about until internet discussions really began to flourish is that union rank and file members were really pissed off in 1994.

What I'd like to see come out of this discussion is not just how Democrats can try to turn out people in-spite of lack of progress in making people's lives better, but how Democrats can make people's lives better in a way turning out votes is far easier.

I don't just want quick fixes to deal with disillusionment, I'd like to find ways to end disillusionment.

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
Sounds good (4.00 / 4)
What I'd like to see come out of this discussion is not just how Democrats can try to turn out people in-spite of lack of progress in making people's lives better, but how Democrats can make people's lives better in a way turning out votes is far easier.

Since everything else has failed, maybe Dems could try to, I dunno, deliver for the non-rich. Congress, under Democratic leadership, is about to let long term unemployment benefit expire. The money's just isn't there. And the money just isn't there for a real jobs program. But for Wall Street, the money was there, by the truck full. Do Dems really believe that people don't notice? As you said, it's not like these voters are going to vote GOP; they're going to stay home...and maybe vote for Lou Dobbs in 2012.

One more thing: the slap-the-base strategy can work for general elections, but it causes problems in midterms, where you really need teachers, blue collar workers, greens, etc. If you want to "hold teachers accountable" and renege on your promise to redo NAFTA, well, okay, but don't expect us not to notice.

[ Parent ]
disillusioned or apatheic (0.00 / 0)
We've already had our primary in my state, and pretty much statewide the vote was 40 percent of 08 and only 2/3 of 2006, which was considered a really low-turnout primary. We had a lot of people knocking on doors in a lot of counties, and as I liberal I wish the base was rising up in disgust, but its hard to say whether people are disillusioned or just not hungry with Democrats in the White House.

Non-voters were the lower information primary voters anway, and there was no big movement to ignore the party or voting over DC. At the party dinners passing Health Care and the president get standing ovations.

All I know is more people than usual are bored with all of this this year.  

[ Parent ]
Actually (4.00 / 1)
that proverb came from a wise muppet.

But your point stands -- most voters are results-oriented.

Which has been behind the cynical Republican ploy all along, to block any governing or accomplishment.

Tim Wolfe

[ Parent ]
Yoda was no muppet. n/t (0.00 / 0)

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
Here's my feeling: (4.00 / 2)
Of course I will vote. But I will be holding my nose. I simply don't want to reward Dems for sucking so viciously. I want to teach them a lesson. I want to see them get their asses kicked so maybe they will wake up and stop being such lame corrupt weasels. I want them to wake the fuck up from their inside the beltway induced stupor.

Of course I will end up going to the polls and voting for Dems, because it's obvious that Repubs are much worse. But I'm not going to enjoy it. I'm not going to come home from my polling place feeling all warm and fuzzy. "Yay! I voted for the shit sandwich instead of the arsenic burger!"

And if someone as engaged as myself can barely get it up to vote, it's a no-brainer that millions of less engaged Dems are simply going to say "fuck it."

[ Parent ]
that could actually be a valid strategy (0.00 / 0)
Few ever bitch about how the DLC decided to skip 1988 and focus on controlling the Party in 1992.

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
But they haven't. (4.00 / 6)
That's the whole problem right there. When Republican policies fail, and the Democratic response is "more Republican policies," you really can't blame the voters.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Glenn Greenwald covers problems on the civil liberties, rule of law according to (4.00 / 2)
the Constitutional thoroughly. Assassinating Americans wasn't a big part of the Dems' platforms for all these years. At least not announced and crowed about by a Dem administration.

CorrenteWire has been and is still big on single payer and how disappointed liberals and even independents are about that issue.

Now, there's that lovely Peterson/Obama "Eat Cat Food" Commission.  Happy days --NOT-- for Dems of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

Not many Dems signed up for going after SocSec and Medicare/Medicaid.

Voters are disppointed in how the Dems seem to be playing the Republican Lite role in Congress and the WH; they thought they were getting real Dems; they thought there would be change toward the left, not going further to the right.

[ Parent ]
I actually forgot about the primaries and didn't vote (4.00 / 1)
Doesn't really matter for me as I doubt a democrat is even going to run in my district.

I don't think your question will work as I would have voted if I had bothered to remember.  

Unlikely and likely voters generally vote because they believe it will make a difference.  Unlikely voters are unlikely to be affected by their vote in 2010.  


that's one huge problem with testing via poll (4.00 / 3)
The other huge problem is the nature of testing why people aren't planning on doing something.

Where is the Burden?

Now we all know there are plenty of Americans who view voting as a duty -- but forget about them for a moment as, by definition, they are aren't the people to worry about.

For everyone else, again by definition, the default isn't that they will vote. They may vote if they have the time and/or inclination, but the default isn't a guaranteed vote.

I've always intentionally assumed low propensity votes won't vote, and then spent the campaign trying to give them reasons to vote. This is easy to poll, this is the "are you more likely" stuff can be used on inclination to vote as easy as on persuasion.

So if you play it safe, and follow that assumption that low propensity voters won't vote, then Bowers poll question would look something like, "Why hasn't Democratic controlled DC given you a reason to vote?" Which is a miserable looking question, but at least comes from the perspective of considering the burden is on the candidate/party to give a reason why.

Pretty quickly you can see why I think these are focus group questions, not poll questions.

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
I think the best question would be (0.00 / 0)
"What are your pet issues"?

I think the real issue though is that the really dedicated people don't want to cater to the unlikely voters.  

So even if they discovered what the unlikely voters wanted they would rather fail with their own ideals.


[ Parent ]
Disagree (4.00 / 2)
One of my "pet issues" could be the energy. Obama's stated energy policy is more nuclear, clean coal (oxymoron) and drill, baby, drill. That policy is completely opposite of what I consider good policy.

Knowing what my pet issues are in no way ensures my vote if the Dems adopt policies that I oppose.

[ Parent ]
Anyone know how much (4.00 / 2)
R2K  charges for a poll?  I would be willing to kick in $ for it.

let's do it (4.00 / 3)
really. we could probably go in with DKos and some other commie rags on this. get the "did you vote, if not, why?" info for 2004, 06, 08, and 10 (and maybe 2012 too? or too far away?) - distinguish Presidential election years from midterm years, and Presidents in general from Obama specifically. or some such, i'm sure there are people who know how to put these things together better than i do.

but the point would be to get data about habitual voters, habitual non-voters, and people who have changed from one to the other or just wobble around.

not everything worth doing is profitable. not everything profitable is worth doing.

[ Parent ]
I totally want to test this also (0.00 / 0)
But see my points up-thread about the problems with trying to ask the right question, much less have it answered via polling.

To figure out why something in the future isn't going to happen (as should be both expected and assumed), you really need polling to figure out who to focus group.

On twitter: @BobBrigham

[ Parent ]
Visible progress (4.00 / 4)
If Democrats have visible progress, we win and maybe win big.  The Depression was not over in 1934 but the unemployment rate was down by more than 3% from its 1933 high.  Democrats picked up seats after 3 straight landslides and Republicans were on the ropes.

What happens with little or no visible progress?  Voters vote change and keep doing it until things get better.  The alternative was shown in the Panic of 1893.  In 1894, voters punished the party in power (the Democrats) and their corporate, conservative ways in an unprecedented fashion.  Democrats lost 125 seats in the House (in a 357 seat chamber).  Not enough progress by 18986?  The pendulum started to swing back to the Democrats who gained seats while losing the White House.  By 1898 things finally were getting better and Republicans consolidated power during one of Paul's party eras.

A "jobless recovery" is no recovery at all.  Anything that benefits the top 1% but not the other 99% won't cut it.  Get jobs.  Get a jobs program.  Protect Social Security and the heck with those balanced budget dunces.  The heck with those Wall Street smart mouths.  The heck with the leeches.  All they know is how to feather their own nests and if they economy gets wrecked in the process well, then labor is cheaper and they love it even more.

I would add something (4.00 / 2)
The other thing that happened in the early 30s was FDR and others repeated the story of how the Republicans and the rich had gotten together and caused the depression. It was a generation before voters let Republicans back into power.  

This time they tried "bipartisanship" (with only one side participating) instead.


Seeing The Forest -- Who is our economy FOR, anyway? Twitter: dcjohnson

[ Parent ]
Those comparison figures (4.00 / 1)
are from years when a Republican was president. I'm not doubting that there is an enthusiasm gap, but in midterms doesn't enthusiasm always lag among voters in the president's party? Is this drop off unusually high? It seems a better gauge would be Republican voters under Bush, or Dem voters under Clinton.  

Comparisons (4.00 / 4)
Just looking at non-Presidential votes for the US House, here are the totals of late:

Yr.      WH     D vote         R vote
2006     R      42,082,211     35,674,808
2002     R      33,642,142     37,091,270
1998     D      31,391,834     31,983,612
1994     D      31,542,823     36,325,809
1990     R      32,397,732     27,402,036
1986     R      32,388,342     26,384,083
1982     R      35,126,406     27,606,014
1978     D      29,129,007     24,401,021
1974     R      29,172,142     21,165,183
1970     R      28,781,048     24,121,959
1966     D      26,712,412     25,408,798

As you can see, the number of votes slowly increases over time.  Republican votes decreased by 1.5 million in 2006 (vs. 2004) while Democratic votes soared by 8,5 million.  Republican votes in 2002 soared by 5.9 million while Democratic votes rose by 2.2 million.

The elections are often marked by a key issue or set of issues: Katrina/Iraq/Bush fatigue (2006), the "war on terror" (2002), the Clinton impeachment (1998), the House banking, contract on America baloney (1994), severe recession (1982), Watergate (1974), Nixon's "conservative" crusade fronted by Agnew (1970), Vietnam dissatisfaction/civil rights (1966).

Make your own decision but turnout seems to play a big part in mid-term elections.

[ Parent ]
Interesting, thanks (4.00 / 4)
That's amazing: It took the Dems 24 years to surpass their '82 vote total. Way to go DLC!

[ Parent ]
I hope they do spend some of the money (4.00 / 1)
on this polling, although I doubt they will.

I suspect that dynamic candidates who weren't hopelessly tagged with being ensconced in the political establishment and lacking any core principles would also help. Yet the party seems committed to keeping those people as far away from the ballot as possible.  

The poll you are suggesting might pierce elite claims about electability, bipartisanship, and centrism.  It might suggest putting different issues onto the agenda than those that make Davids Broder and Brooks happy.  

Given that, I'd say either outsiders commission this or it will not happen.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

Can I just say (0.00 / 0)
that the comparison to yesterday with the NC 2004 primaries is dubious?

For one thing, there were a couple of contested council of state races that had people in the know among Democrats choosing sides, including (if I remember correctly) state superintendent (a three-way race that ended in the last runoff prior to this year) and a very competitive race for Commissioner of Agriculture.

Also, of course, as folks have noted, that was a presidential election year. The presidential race wasn't on the ballot - we had had a caucus to determine our delegate assignments - but the fact that it was a presidential year meant that more people were paying attention, more activists were letting folks know about the primary, candidates were having more opportunities to engage voters (e.g. at Kerry meetups), etc., etc.

Finally - and I don't know if this made any difference - the primary was held much later in the year because a redistricting dispute had delayed things. My guess is that this acted as a multiplier of the presidential year effect: again, since folks were already organizing for the presidential race, there were far more "active" Democrats for the candidates tor reach.

Of course, in the end, all of this added interest in the primary didn't mean that much. Kerry lost in a blowout, we lost a couple of open council of state seats, and at least one incumbent COS member lost. Not a single Congressional seat changed parties.

One last thought - Democratic registration skyrocketed from 2004-2008, while I believe Republicans may have suffered a net loss of registrants over that time. At least some of the low turnout percentages can be attributed to the increase in the number of new voters who were never going to vote in a primary, period.

I want to hear more about the primaries The Hill references in Ohio and Indiana before I throw in the towel.


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