Primary Turnout Versus General Election Turnout

by: Matt Stoller

Sun Feb 24, 2008 at 16:18

Via Mike Pridmore, Rhodes Cook notes that primary turnout is a terrible indicator for general election results.

Presidential Turnout

The sample size of Presidential races is way too small to draw any real conclusions.  Here's Cook.

The Democrats in particular have had a number of "negative" high turnouts, where friction between various wings of the party produced substantial voter interest but a badly scarred nominee with little chance of winning the general election.

It happened in 1972, when the controversial anti-Vietnam War campaign of George McGovern barely prevailed over more moderate elements in the party. It happened again in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale could not shake off primary challenges from Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. And to a degree, it happened a third time in 1988 when Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and Jackson kept fighting weeks beyond that year's large Super Tuesday vote before Dukakis finally nailed down the Democratic nomination.

In contrast, the 2000 Republican contest between Bush and McCain arguably produced a positive turnout surge. The two candidates battled across the February calendar that year and into March, setting GOP primary turnout records in far-flung contests from New York to California. Yet in spite of the intensity of that campaign, it ended amicably enough on Super Tuesday. McCain abandoned his candidacy in favor of Bush, and the Republicans marched united into a fall campaign which they ultimately won.

Given that base Democratic voters (as opposed to activists and elites) like both Clinton and Obama, and Republicans are not especially fond of John McCain, it seems like a united Democratic Party and a depressed and damaged GOP will be the outcomes.  Obama is kicking the crap out of McCain on the money side in a way that is probably unprecedented; Obama will have a billion dollars to spend, and McCain will have much less than that.

I wonder if fundraising - either number of donors or total amount - is a proxy for general election strength.  Bush outraised Gore substantially in 2000, and the conservative movement was much more energized at that time than the progressive base.    I think Clinton beat Dole in 1996 by total amount, but I'm not sure about the number of donors.  And in 1980, Reagan's direct mail base was substantially larger than Carter, though this may not have been true in 1972, when McGovern's campaign pioneered direct mail fundraising.


Matt Stoller :: Primary Turnout Versus General Election Turnout

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Also... (4.00 / 1)
Not all of those primaries were truly competitve on both sides to the degree this one has been. There really is no excuse for  the Republican turnout being so much lower than ours. Add to that the fact that our candidates have been finding new voters at an unprecedented clip, and it's pretty hard to make the case that things aren't going fantastic right now.

Skeptical (4.00 / 2)
I'm not nearly as confident.

Gore and Kerry at this point in polling for their respective 2000/2004 campaigns were way ahead of the Republican nominee.

Obama and Clinton are polling fairly equally against McCain with Obama holding some recent advantages in some states against McCain but not as wide as you would think.

And Obama is just now starting to be put under a microscope. And this is with the right-wing noise machine barely in first gear.

I don't underestimate the Republican's ability to gin up fear in general and against Obama with the 527s while propping up the backdrop of McCain as a war hero with experience while appealing to Reagan Democrats (the ones who are older, more conservative, and not voting for Obama now).

The Right-wing will rally as they realize what they have to lose (their wing nut court dream).

2004 wasn't that long ago and I see this as a squeaker once again. Democrats are getting a  little to overconfident after 2006. Obama will have the money advantage, but who knows where and how he plans to spend it.

Thanks for this Matt... (0.00 / 0)
....I was wondering when someone with a functioning brain was going to take a look at the 'primary turnout means we kick ReThug ass meme....'


Worked great for McGovern did it not?

Your take seems to indicate that it would be good for Dem chances if the Obama/Clinton campaigns ended their contest on an amicable note.

Of course for the true Oborg this is heresy so get ready for some pushback.

Me? I got my popcorn and look forward to the denouement!

Which I will work to make include 'More and Better Progressive Democrats'.

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

No Corrolation (4.00 / 1)
Looking at the chart, the Democrats ALWAYS turn out for contested primaries, and 2000 was the only time the GOP turned out.

If the Dukakis campaign had not parted company with John Sasso because of the Biden plagerism tape, he might have won the election. As it was, Sasso's return sparked a power struggle with the Susan Estrich faction, which paralyzed the campaign in September. Doonesbury captured the zeitgeist --  Dukakis buried under a pile of mud, assuring us everything was under control.

In 1996, the Clinton Campaign had crushed Dole's image before the summer -- with the DNC and C/G-96 running identical slo-mo black and white ads of Newt and Bob. I'm pretty sure the Clintons swamped the GOP in Presidential fundraising that year -- but through neglect of the House races, the GOP held on and the Starr chamber was given free rein.

The way the Clintons ran the DNC as an extension of Clinton Inc was one of the reasons I dreaded President Hillary -- Howard Dean and the Progressives would have been the first to be shoved aside.

The Clintons' fundraising prowess in '96 was with the Robert Rubin Wall Street set -- Mark Penn is a holdover from the 'Leave no hedge fund manager behind' strategy group.

return on investment (0.00 / 0)
I really have my doubts on the fundraising situation. Freedom's Watch alone promised something like $250 million worth of disgusting swift-boat ads.

Considering the return on investment of keeping Bush's tax cuts more years, I think big money Republican donors will give about as much, if not more than they've given previously. It'd just be a good investment for them.

total votes cast in a primary (4.00 / 1)
There is a major problem with this kind of analysis. Obviously turnout is a function of not just voter excitement, but how competitive the primary is. In fact, differences in turnout between the parties seem to be almost completely determined by the relative differences in competitiveness: in every case except 1980, the party with an incumbent running (Pres or VP) always has lower turnout. So I don't think you can use this kind of analysis to draw any conclusions about this year, good or bad for Democrats.

Furthermore, you could simply read this entire chart as evidence that incumbent Presidents tend to win reelection unless they have angered their base: the only times on this chart the incumbent has ever lost is when they have been challenged in the primary. Yes, that is probably too simplistic a way to read the past 35 years of Presidential politics, but I think it is no more simplistic then the arguments about "negative" and "positive" turnout. If you just look at the two elections without an incumbent President, in both cases the party with more votes in the primary got fewer votes in the general.

So I would say that none of this analysis is relevant for this year. Both parties will almost without a doubt set a record for highest turnout ever in a primary. The more relevant thing to look at is probably, on a state-by-state level, whether or not Democrats are beating their previous record turnout by more or less than Republicans, or something similar.

Wait just a minute! (4.00 / 1)
Obama is galvanizing the electorate. Folks are thronging to vote for him. He's swamping the predicted turnout numbers!

He's inevitable!

I must say I'm getting confused now......

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

Heh (0.00 / 0)
Don't look at the turnout numbers. Look at the money.

That's where the ironclad evidence of Obama's real strength is.

[ Parent ]
You say! (0.00 / 0)
And where pray tell is all that money coming from? Rivers of the stuff. I saw an estimate that Sen. 'Hope' might have 1 Billion for the GE.....

Must be a lot of online folks giving their $10 and $20 dollars, eh?

Interesting concept that, 'Money = Free Speech' SCOTUS has told us.....

But who told them?

And why?

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

[ Parent ]
Lots of online folks (0.00 / 0)
About 600K of them, this month (nearly a million since the beginning of the campaign).  I don't agree that money=speech, but it's a hell of a different thing for a candidate to be backed by one million people making small donations, vs. 1 billionaire funding a 527.

If you look at January, he had $36M on 170K donations.  If he gets 4 times the donations, average donation probably falls a bit (it already had in January from his 2007 average), but you're still talking about insane amounts of money.

The danger is that tensions between Obama and Clinton supporters are getting very high (partly organic, partly because Hillary has gone heavily negative, and the Obama supporters are blaming the Hillary rank and file, taking it out on them because that's who they can reach).  This needs to be over, or it will be 1968 all over again, no matter who the nominee is.

[ Parent ]
I'm thinking (0.00 / 0)
that in 1988, the reason for a larger turnout in the democratic primary had little to do with a wave of enthusiasm for Dukakis sweeping the nation.

So perhaps this is merely a case that primary turnout isn't an indicator of general election performace if the person that wins the primary is a lackluster candidate like Dukakis.

The Obama Strategy (4.00 / 1)
Found in an Atrios comment thread -- via The Politico

Obama models campaign on Reagan revolt

By: David Paul Kuhn
July 25, 2007 11:07 AM EST

Awash in money and publicity but behind in the polls, Barack Obama, advisers say, is planning a classic insurgent's campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Rodham Clinton -- one that relies on a surge of momentum from early-state victories and faces a make-or-break test in the South Carolina primary.

Obama is touting a new and unconventional brand of grass-roots politics, but his strategy borrows from precedents set by a previous generation of Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart. His advisers also invoke as inspiration a surprising Republican: Ronald Reagan.

"Now, it is blasphemy for Democrats," Obama pollster Cornell Belcher said of Reagan, "but that hope and optimism that was Ronald Reagan" allowed him to "transcend" ideological divisions within his own party and the general electorate.

The upbeat message, Obama advisers say, won't prevent the candidate from stepping up both veiled and explicit contrasts with Clinton, who he hopes to portray as an old-hat conventional politician whose varied positions on the Iraq war reflect calculation rather than leadership.

Obama's need to transcend conventional politics is evident by looking at the practical hurdles to his nomination. He boasts best-selling books and magazine cover spreads and -- most relevant to his 2008 ambitions -- is winning the fundraising race in both total dollars and with a record number of contributors.

But bundles of cash and good buzz have not eroded what most national polls show as a durable double-digit lead for Clinton, built largely around her nearly two-to-one advantage with Democratic women.

This has Obama relying on a carom-shot candidacy, in which, come January, he will need to exploit Clinton's weakness in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, then have nearly all the bounces go his way in other early contests if he hopes to compete credibly once the race goes national with voting in half the states on Feb. 5.

Obama strategists say for now they are not running a national campaign but are depending on what senior adviser David Axelrod calls "a sequential series" of victories.

So, how did that Reagan thingy work out for him?

Primary turnout vs generel election results: flawed analysis (0.00 / 0)
It is clear that the historic analysis shows that increased primary turnout did not predict general election victory in the past.  This, however, requires further analysis.  A case can be made that in past years, increased primary turnout was a function of intense primary competition.  The bruising battles raised the turnout, but also left the party with a severely injured candidate limping into the general election.  

A case can be made for a different scenario this year.  While there is a spirited competition for the nomination, there is a strong sense that many Democrats are happy with either candidate, that there is very little substantive difference between the candidates, and that the nominee will have the strong support of the defeated primary candidate.

To compare this to 1972, it seems to me that 2008 is playing out as if there were no Humphrey wing of the Democratic party.  There is no division among Democrats about the war, about healthcare, or about education.  There is no Democrat who supports this war or served as Vice President when the war was started.  Back in 1972 there were strong factions of the Democratic Party and a vast majority of independent voters who were appalled by street demonstrations, who hated and feared "hippies" and "druggies" and "bra-burning womens' libbers" and other non-traditionalists.  In many ways 1972 was a replay of Eugene McCarthy against LBJ, and it was a bitter, huge divide.

If there is such a divide today at all, it is clearly in the Republican camp.  Democrats and independents have strongly moved into the anti-war camp with an intense scepticism about the "war on terror" and a marked concern over the economy and other domestic concerns.  The divide is inside the Republican Party, and in fact, one reason McCain is so bitterly hated by the right wing noise machine is the fact that he, along with a few other Republicans, started making noises that were disloyal to Bush as he voiced more and more strongly his dissatisfaction with the way they were running the war.  Now McCain has jumped onto the the other side, fully supporting Bush in Iraq, so that he can win the Republican nomination.  The war will be an albatross around his neck.  The landscape is being littered with the corpses of Republican congressional representatives who are retiring.

To sum it up, great primary turnour is a positive thing this year, and the historic analysis does not account for fundamental shifts in voter sentiment.  The historic analysis does not make clear that great primary turnout in the past was a sign of intense primary fighting (a negative for the general election) and that this is not applicable to the changed conditions this year.

previous thread (0.00 / 0)
For what it's worth, this subject was briefly touched on here.

The truth about Saxby Chambliss

Judging by the level of intra-party vitriol (0.00 / 0)
on Dem blogs of late, I don't think it's safe at all to think that  "it seems like a united Democratic Party and a depressed and damaged GOP will be the outcome."

I'm completely confident that HRC and BHO will eventually kiss and make up for the good of the party. I don't feel at all confident that their supporters will do the same. The nastiness has been a real eye-opener.


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