Smashing Turnout Records

By Jim Ellis

March 21, 2016 — Republican leaders who don’t think Donald Trump will fare well in the general election might examine the updated primary turnout statistics as a prediction clue. Largely due to Trump’s candidacy, in 15 of the 19 states that have so far held primaries in conjunction with Democratic contests, more people have chosen to vote on the Republican side, and in record numbers.

Turning the clock back to 2008, it was possible to see the burgeoning support base for then-candidate Barack Obama based upon his success in Democratic primaries. His advantage was largely tied to him exciting new people and motivating them to vote.

Eight years ago, confining our analysis only to the 19 states that have held 2016 primaries in which both parties have held electoral events, 60.5 percent of the people from those elections chose to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. Using this strong backing as a launching pad into the general election, then-Sen. Obama went forward to win a convincing general election victory, capturing 53 percent of the national popular vote compared to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s (R) 46 percent.

So far, the numbers in the 2016 primaries are strikingly similar, yet to the benefit of the opposing party. The most glaring factor is the turnout trend’s total about-face. Using the same 19 states that have already held primary elections, an even 57 percent have chosen to participate in a Republican primary this year, almost the exact inverse of what occurred eight years ago.

A factor that should worry both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I/D-VT) is that Democratic turnout was higher in 2008 than 2016 in all of these states but Michigan.

The 2008 Wolverine State vote was badly skewed, however. Then, senators Barack Obama and John Edwards were not on the state’s primary ballot. Because the Michigan Democratic Party had broken national committee rules by moving its primary, the Democratic National Committee leadership penalized their affiliate half of its delegate allotment. In protest of Michigan’s actions, neither Obama nor Edwards entered the state primary. Therefore, these major candidates’ absence from the Michigan campaign obviously depressed turnout to an unusual degree.

Does the increased voter participation number signal a Republican general election victory? Obviously, it is too early to tell but the fact that GOP turnout is up in every state over 2012, and substantially so in some places – a 286 percent increase in Virginia, 169 percent in Arkansas, 96 percent in Texas, 92 percent in Ohio, and more than double in North Carolina, for example – is clearly a good sign for the challenging party. Conversely, as a sampling carrying negative overtones, more than one million fewer people voted in the Ohio Democratic primary this week than when comparing to ’08.

Whether or not the possibility of a divisive brokered convention tampers these positive Republican grassroots trends remain to be seen, but the participation factor to this point likely signals a much stronger GOP general election performance than for the past two election cycles.

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