How much does primary turnout tell us about general election turnout? Not much.

Given the garbage fire that has been the Republican primary campaign, one of the few things Reince Priebus and Donald Trump are both happy about is that turnout for their nominating contests has been higher than usual. By contrast, turnout for the Democratic primaries is lower this year than it was in 2008.

Taken together, this is leading some observers — mostly Republicans — to suggest or even conclude that Republican enthusiasm is higher than Democratic enthusiasm, and therefore Democrats will be at a disadvantage in November.

There is little evidence to support this conclusion.


As Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende explained at about this time during the 2012 cycle, when Republicans were wringing their hands over lower-than-2008 levels of turnout in their primaries, “participation in presidential primaries is driven by close contests with multiple candidates vying for the vote.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the multiple candidates in question are particularly strong — the 1988 Democratic primary had higher turnout than any Republican primary in history, but Dukakis still lost — it just means that the race is close and people (accurately) perceive that their vote matters more. As Trende continued:

The candidates in front of Reagan's Air Force One, screenshot via YouTube

The Republican field in front of Reagan’s Air Force One, screenshot via YouTube

There are plenty of other tidbits we can examine: Republican turnout was up substantially in 1992 and 1996, and yet the Republican share of the two-party vote declined. No one remembers Bob Dole firing up the GOP base. In 2000, Republican primary turnout exceeded Democratic primary turnout for the first time ever, and yet Democrats won the popular vote. In 2004, Democratic participation in primaries was lower than at any time since the 1970s, and yet John Kerry came within a few points of winning the presidency.

In 2012, low turnout in the Republican primaries may have correlated with Mitt Romney being a weak and uninspiring candidate, but it wasn’t caused by that. The more likely explanation, as Trende suggested, was that the 2012 Republican primaries weren’t particularly close. While a series of not-Romneys emerged over the course of the campaign, Romney locked up the establishment backing early and was the prohibitive favorite to win his party’s nomination at this point four years ago.

The same dynamic is playing out this year on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton may not be a particularly inspiring candidate, but she is the prohibitive favorite to lock up the Democratic nomination. Given the choice between the two, I’d point to the latter as an explanation for why turnout is down relative to 2008, when Clinton and then-Senator Obama ran neck and neck into May.

On the Republican side, however, Donald Trump’s dominance of the nominating contests is being undercut by the fact that the Republican Party is desperately trying to deny him a majority of pledged delegates heading into the convention. Marco Rubio and John Kasich have more or less admitted that denying Trump a simple majority in hopes of winning the nomination on the convention floor is their only path to victory; Mitt Romney has stoked those rumors, as well. This means that while Trump’s poll numbers and vote shares are rivaling those of Romney’s in 2012, the Republican race is still being hotly contested. Yes, Donald Trump is an attention-grabbing cult of personality whose supporters are extremely excited to turn out for, but if he were being treated like the presumptive nominee that his position would normally suggest, fewer people would feel the need to actually show up and cast ballots for him.

These circumstances tell us a lot about why turnout is what it is in the parties’ respective primaries, but they tell us very, very little about what voter turnout will look like in a Trump/Clinton general election. A more telling predictor is the fact that the general election is likely to be polarized to epic proportions, which on balance has been shown to increase turnout, among other forms of political participation. The causal story for this jives with everything we know about rational political behavior: When voters perceive a greater difference between two candidates, there are greater benefits and costs associated with the outcome of the election. This increases the incentive to cast a ballot for one candidate or the other.

You don’t have to think that Hillary Clinton is the Messiah, or have voted for her in the spring, to feel that it’s really important for Donald Trump to lose in the fall. Republicans want to believe that having higher turnout in the primaries means they will have higher turnout in the general election. That thinking is wishful at best. The relationship simply isn’t there.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • ParadeOfFools

    We should care about not nominating a superficial candidate of our own. The Republicans are horrible and will be beaten by the Democratic nominee, but that doesn’t mean that selecting the Democratic nominee is not important. We have two extremely different candidates running for it and we have an opportunity to reclaim our government from lobbyist and corporations. Frankly, Hillary is closer to the Republicans than she is to Bernie.

  • DoverBill

    Why should any liberal care that much about who gets to tackle whatever superficial Tea Bagger the conservatives choose to run?

    Your current choices seem to be a religious freak, two imigrant freaks and an extremely wealthy freak!

    Believe me, we care chompin’ at the bit, waiting for the generals.

    Just watch.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The Obama regime deeply alienated thsoe who voted for him 2008 and 2012 base as he continued to because they continue to follow anti-union and racist policies.

    “Democratic turnout has fallen drastically since 2008, the last time the party had a contested primary, with roughly three million fewer Democrats voting in the 15 states that held caucuses or primaries through Tuesday, according to unofficial election results. It declined in virtually every state, dropping by roughly 50 percent in states like Minnesota and Texas. In Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia, the number of Democrats voting decreased by roughly a third.”

    “The fall-off in Democratic primary turnout — which often reveals whether a candidate is exciting voters and attracting them to the polls — reached deeply into some of the core groups of voters Mrs. Clinton must not only win in November, but turn out in large numbers. It stands in sharp contrast to the flood of energized new voters showing up at the polls to vote for Donald J. Trump in the Republican contest.”

    The left, in the form of socialist parties will use the campaign to promote the idea of building a mass socialist party and creating a worker’s government and state. We’ll continue to build the labor left, organize the unorganized and push hard for higher wages, 40 hours a week pay even if the weekly work time is lower and socialized medicine and an end to racist wars of aggression and immigrant bashing.

  • FLL

    Oh, come on, just one more. From a 1990 article in Vanity Fair: “Trump Kept a Volume of Hitler’s Speeches By His Bedside.” This is plagiarism! Plagiarism, I say! Trump is not crediting his original sources. Bill Maher translated one of Hitler’s speeches, and Trump’s plagiarism of Hitler’s speeches is only too obvious. Here is Bill Maher reciting the translation. You be the judge:

  • FLL

    Do you need your media quota of right-wing madness from none other than Pat Robertson himself? Listen to Pat Robertson giving Trump a gushing compliment at Trump’s televised appearance at Regent University, the Christian institution founded by Robertson. Robertson’s money quote: “You inspire us all.” Below is a summary article in “The Blaze,” a right-wing website, and underneath that is the full video of Trump’s performance in which he promises to appoint SCOTUS justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Oh, come on, don’t be shy.

  • FLL

    It seems that a precious few on these comment pages are trying to convince us all that Trump isn’t as bad of a choice (or at least just as good of a choice) as Hillary, and that we shouldn’t be trying to endanger Trump’s victory in November. Why be shy about it? Don’t just write mousy little comments that hide your real motives. Follow the lead of Saturday Night Live and show your colors proudly!

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Then you don’t think she is the Messiah.

  • FLL

    From your post, Jon:

    “…the general election is likely to be polarized to epic proportions…When voters perceive a greater difference between two candidates, there are greater benefits and costs associated with the outcome of the election. This increases the incentive to cast a ballot for one candidate or the other.

    I think almost all voters, no matter which party or candidate they support, agree with your assessment that the general election will be “polarized to epic proportions” and that the two candidates will be vastly different. What a strange little clique of commenters you have inherited who—unlike everyone else in the country of any political persuasion—come to the opposite and bizarre conclusion that the Hillary and Trump are equivalent (see comments downthread). Presumably, this is an ineffective attempt to depress the vote among liberals/progressives in an effort to aid the Republican ticket, but it just winds up being comedy.

  • FLL

    You are correct in saying that she came late to the party, and later than others. Nevertheless, she is at the party and Trump is not, as evidenced by his recent promise (in a TV appearance with Pat Robertson, no less) that he would appoint SCOTUS justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas. On top of that, there is the well-documented fact that politicians fall in line with their political parties. You can take all of the available evidence and come to a logical conclusion… that is, if you are being honest about your motives.

  • FLL

    “If it suited her purposes, she would sell out LGBT people in a heartbeat.”

    This is not a seance. Pretending that you can read people’s minds (in a not-so-subtle effort to boost the Republican ticket) lessens readers willingness to take you seriously.

  • FLL

    The primaries really aren’t over yet, but I can see that you’re excitedly jumping to the general election. You do not state your preferences in each and every general election… you imply them, over years and years of commenting.

  • Opinionated Cat Lover

    There always is a choice on the ballet ‘none of the above’. Stay home or vote 3rd party.

    Just if Trump wins, I don’t want to hear you complaining about it. You’ve made your choice, and you’ll live with it.

  • Opinionated Cat Lover

    Then you can sit home or vote 3rd party in 2016, but don’t you dare complain if Team Red (especially Trump) wins.

  • 2karmanot

    Jazz hands on this one!

  • kladinvt

    No I’m not, but that’s why I would never vote for Hillary. Don’t forget Clinton gave us DOMA & “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and even though that happen under Bill’s administration, Hillary backed them both. So save the whole bit about Hillary being our friend….she came very late to the party.

  • nicho

    You don’t have to think that Hillary Clinton is the Messiah

    What if we think she is a bloodthirsty warhawk who is beholden to the moneyed interests on Wall Street and would sell us out if told to by her pollsters and One Percenter donors?

  • nicho

    Are you talking about Hillary or Trump? Because there’s no telling what Hillary would do. If it suited her purposes, she would sell out LGBT people in a heartbeat. And she would appoint her BFF Kissinger to the court if she thought it would feather her nest. Do not trust that woman.

  • mark_in_toronto

    From here, all I can do is fill out my absentee ballot and be entertained by US newscasts. They are quite ridiculous.
    But in the end, all I can say is . . . I hope you’re right.

  • 2patricius2

    So you’re okay with an Administration that would attack LGBT people and would appoint Justices to the SCOTUS that would approve voter suppression and discrimination against LGBT people?

  • Don Chandler

    Trump might be the best thing to happen with people wanting a multi-party system. Unfortunately, tea party, trump party, or republican party is bad bad bad news. All three look so much alike.

  • timncguy

    saw a tweet the other day with the stat that of the last 11 elections, only 4 were won by the party with higher primary turnout.

  • kladinvt

    Predictably, this is another article in a long series, telling voters who don’t support Hillary that they MUST “hold their noses” and vote for her because of….fear of Trump or a republican take over. If we get stuck with Hillary & Trump as the nominees, this would be an ideal time to have a 3rd choice on ballots that says, “None of the Above”.

  • FLL

    The 2008 primaries were genuinely contested by three candidates (Obama, Clinton and Edwards) during all of January, which generated more voting. Also, at least two states this time around were so completely dominated by one candidate (Bernie in New Hampshire and Hillary in South Carolina) that voters could safely assume the outcome, and as a result, show up in fewer numbers.

  • 2patricius2

    This is reassuring.

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