Turnout twists

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Don­ald Lam­bro

Democrats claim high voter turnout in their pri­maries is proof pos­i­tive they’ll win the White House in Novem­ber. It is a familiar claim, made by one party or the other, that pops up ev­ery four years, but it con­tains not a morsel of truth. Many stud­ies show no cor­re­la­tion be­tween party pri­mary par­tic­i­pa­tion and gen­eral elec­tion re­sults.

Nev­er­the­less, in a mem­o­ran­dum to its sup­port­ers and the news me­dia, the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee is crow­ing, “record turnout dur­ing the pri­maries has been trans­for­ma­tional for the Demo­cratic Party as record num­bers of new vot­ers are be­ing reg­is­tered.” In this equa­tion, new pri­mary vot­ers equal more gen­eral elec­tion votes. “Democrats are en­er­gized all across the coun­try and [. . .] if Democrats show up and talk about our val­ues, we will win,” the memo as­serts.

No one knows more about turnout than Curt Gans, the vet­eran voter an­a­lyst who heads the Com­mit­tee for the Study of the Amer­i­can Elec­torate at Amer­i­can Univer­sity. So when I asked him if the Democrats’ claims had merit, he ex­plained it is wrong to con­clude a party’s higher pri­mary turnout will re­sult in an elec­tion vic­tory.

“It is true that turnout has been ex­tra­or­di­nary this pri­mary sea­son, par­tic­u­larly in the Demo­cratic Party, but also in the Repub­li­can Party,” Mr. Gans told me. As of two weeks ago, “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 con­tin­ued. “There is no rule on this. You can have high turnout in the pri­maries and still lose.”

Look at what hap­pened to the Democrats when Ge­orge McGovern won the nom­i­na­tion in 1972 on a wave of an­ti­war fer­vor that pro­duced record pri­mary turnout in his party. The South Dakota sen­a­tor was crushed in an elec­toral land­slide by Pres­i­dent Nixon, and car­ried only one state. Repub­li­can an­a­lysts who are closely study­ing this year’s voter turnout sta­tis­tics point to sim­i­lar cases in which the party with the high­est pri­mary turnout has been trounced in the elec­tion.

In 1988, for in­stance, af­ter eight years of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency, frus­trated Democrats flocked to the pri­maries, with a turnout rate twice that of Repub­li­cans. But Vice Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush eas­ily de­feated Gov. Michael Dukakis.

It seems that years in the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness tend to pro­duce higher turnout rates. “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 pri­mary his­tory. In 1980, though, the Repub­li­cans didn’t need a high pri­mary turnout to help them. Ron­ald Rea­gan was their can­di­date and Jimmy Carter’s failed pres­i­dency was as dead as a door­nail be­fore the elec­tion had be­gun.

About the time the DNC’s memo was be­ing cir­cu­lated, a study by two aca­demics ripped the Democrats’ spe­cious claims asun­der. “Our find­ings show that no mat­ter which party has the edge in nom­i­na­tion con­test turnout, there is no re­sul­tant ad­van­tage in the gen­eral elec­tion for that party,” writes Leonard Wil­liams, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at In­di­ana’s Manch­ester Col­lege, and Neil Woll­man, a se­nior fel­low at Bent­ley Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts.

Go­ing back sev­eral decades, the learned duo found no parti- san ad­van­tage be­tween pri­mary turnout and the out­come in a gen­eral elec­tion, a rule that “holds true re­gard­less of the re­gion of the coun­try ex­am­ined and re­gard­less of the time pe­riod stud­ied.”

“We are not try­ing to make any pre­dic­tion about what will hap­pen this year. What we are try­ing to do is test the con­ven­tional wis­dom that we’ve seen in a num­ber of news ac­counts that higher turnout for the Democrats is an in­di­ca­tor that they will win in the fall,” Mr. Wil­liams told me. “Our study shows, well, maybe, but don’t get your hopes up. There is no nec­es­sary re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two.” he said.

The DNC also points to the es­ti­mated 3.5 mil­lion new vot­ers re­cently reg­is­tered, in­clud­ing vot­ers who “are chang­ing their party reg­is­tra­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the Demo­cratic pri­maries and cau­cuses” as fur­ther ev­i­dence of their party’s grow­ing strength. But Mr. Gans says, “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” that won’t be clear un­til later in the year.

It was once be­lieved that higher voter reg­is­tra­tion and turnout was bad for Repub­li­cans and good for Democrats, but that su­per­sti­tion has been dis­proved as well.

Still, Mr. Gans cau­tions “there is a cor­re­la­tion” be­tween re­ces­sions, the be­lief that the coun­try is on the wrong track, and elec­tion turnout. With sky­rock­et­ing gas prices and higher food costs, “I would be shocked if we did not have a higher turnout this fall,“ he said.

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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