High Democratic Turnout Sends a Mixed Signal for November

Record voter participation this year seems to predict a Democratic win, but history shows otherwise.

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In the first five weeks of 2008, "voter turnout" was a phrase that was used almost exclusively in connection with the Democratic Party. There were routine stories of precincts running short on ballots, poll hours being extended, and voters packing haunch to paunch inside community centers and local churches. Crowd sizes were described, often with growing awe, as "staggering," "record breaking," or "unprecedented."

The actual numbers justified the claims. From January 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, to February 5, i.e. Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states held nominating contests, more than 19.1 million Americans cast a ballot in a Democratic primary (or caucused as a Democrat), compared with just 13.1 million on the Republican side, a U.S. News analysis has found.*

On a state-by-state basis, Democrats had higher turnouts than Republicans in 19 out of 25 states. The six outliers that tilted Republican were Arizona (Sen. John McCain's home turf), Utah (a pro-Romney Mormon stronghold), Michigan (where Rep. Denis Kucinich was the sole Democrat to campaign), Florida (where no Democrats campaigned), Alabama, and Alaska.

Even in Georgia, a state President George W. Bush won in 2004 by 17 percent, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by nearly 100,000.

The intermediate conclusion: Democrats are more enthusiastic about their options than Republicans. But do the high turnouts portend a Democratic victory in November?

Not necessarily.

For starters, primary turnout rates (in terms of ballots cast) historically tend to be higher for Democrats than Republicans. From 1972 to 2004, there were only two primary elections in which Republicans had a higher cumulative turnout: 1996 (when Bill Clinton, as the incumbent, essentially made Democratic primaries that year irrelevant) and 2000 (when Al Gore, as the sitting vice president, made quick work of Bill Bradley and clinched the nomination early in the campaign). Much of this trend reflects the fact that Democrats, for the past 36 years, have been "out of the White House" more often than in it and therefore have greater incentive to vote in primaries, as well as the rather sizable advantage—17 million more people are registered Democrats than Republicans, as of 2004—they hold in overall voter registration. In fact, even in 1980, when Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, was on the ballot, the number of votes cast in Democratic primaries exceeded the Republican total by 6 million, or nearly 50 percent.

Second, record turnouts during primaries often fail to yield general election victories in November. Two notable examples would be 1988 and 2000. In 1988, the Democratic Party, bolstered by eight years of a Republican in office, set an all-time primary high of 23 million votes (compared with 14 million in 2000 and 16.2 million in 2004), before losing again to another Republican (George H. W. Bush). The Republicans experienced a similar—if less consequential—problem in 2000. That year, the party had its highest primary turnout in history: More than 17 million votes were cast, breaking the previous record by more than 3 million votes. In November, however, Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes.

Despite historical trends, other factors could give pause to Democrats hoping to win this year. Democrats haven't been the only ones seeing record turnouts in 2008. In several states on Super Tuesday, Republicans turned out in record percentages, but still more Democrats voted during the time between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday.

Reading too deeply into historical comparisons, of course, especially with regard to voter turnout, can be misleading and even erroneous. "Making these comparisons can sometimes be like reading tea leaves," says Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University who specializes in voting behavior in American elections. "There are so many different variables. This year there was all the front-loading going on, and the degree of competition has varied from previous election cycles. Drawing conclusions with other years can be very dicey."