Democrats claim high voter turnout in their primaries is proof positive they'll win the White House in November.
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
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.
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 last week, "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
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.
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 partisan 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
"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.
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.