Primary turnout, fall win unlinked; Democrats’ claims defy history
The Democrats are claiming that record voter turnout in their party primaries will translate into winning the White House in November, but election studies show there is no correlation between the two in modern presidential history.
“Record turnout during the primaries has been transformational for the Democratic Party as record numbers of new voters are being registered,” the Democratic National Committee said in a memorandum to its supporters and the news media two weeks ago. “Democrats are energized all across the country and we’re [. . . ] proving that if Democrats show up and talk about our values, we will win.”
But Curtis Gans, a veteran voterturnout analyst who heads the Com- mittee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University said it would be wrong to conclude that high primary turnout leads to victory in November.
“It is true that turnout has been extraordinary this primary season, particularly in the Democratic Party, but also in the Republican Party,” Mr. Gans said. “As of [May 8], 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 said. “There is no rule on this. You can have high turnout in the primaries and still lose. That’s what happened to the Democrats when George McGovern won the nomination in 1972 during the Viet- nam War” but lost a 49-state landslide to President Nixon.
Republican analysts pointed to similar cases where the party with the higher primary turnout was defeated in the general election. In 1988, after eight years of President Reagan, Democratic primary turnout was nearly twice that of the Republican Party, but Vice President George Bush easily won.
“Since 1972, the out-of-power party has had higher turnout in the primaries in every election except for 1980,” according to a recent Republican analysis of primaryturnout history.
At about the time the DNC memo was released, a study by two academics came out last week that also found no correlation between primary-voter turnout and success in the general election.
“Our findings show that no mat- ter which party has the edge in nomination-contest turnout, there is no resultant advantage in the general election for that party,” wrote Leonard Williams, a political science professor at Manchester College and Neil Wollman, a senior fellow at the Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Bentley College.
The two academics said they gathered primary-turnout voting data going back several decades to study “the extent to which the party with the highest turnout rates in the primary could be expected to win in the fall election.”
They found that “partisan advantage in nomination-contest turnout and the partisan advantage in the general-election outcome are unrelated,” adding that this “holds true, regardless of the region of the country examined and regardless of the time period studied.”
“I looked at those who had a big turnout to determine if they had the likely advantage, but there is no significant relationship,” Mr. Williams said in a phone interview, explaining that his study is “not trying to make any prediction about what will happen this year” but simply “test the conventional wisdom that we’ve seen in a number of news accounts.”
The DNC points to an estimated 3.5 million increase in voter registration, including voters who “are changing their party registration to participate in the Democratic primaries and caucuses,” as further evidence of the party’s growing strength.
But Mr. Gans said, “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.”