Let’s hear it for voter enthusiasm! Or not.
We’ve still got six months until the November election, and given the roller-coaster ride and the lack of logic in this year’s presidential race, we may as well abandon the prediction business and look with skepticism on predictive polls (and especially exit polls) right now. So let’s take a look at how different groups measure voter enthusiasm, and what that might mean as voters choose the next president.
Many Democratic election observers took a Nervous Nellie approach (myself included) when voter turnout was much higher for Republican contests than for those on the Democratic side. At the beginning of the primary voting cycle, Republican voters outnumbered Democratic voters by healthy margins. A rough estimate in mid-March showed about 18.7 million votes for Republicans and 13.1 million votes for Democrats. A compilation by the Pew Research Center showed that Republican turnout was 17.3 percent of eligible voters, while Democratic turnout was 11.7 percent.
Recently, that’s changed. The vote totals in the contests in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states of Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island gave much higher totals for the two Democratic candidates than they did for the three Republicans. According to a final tally, there were nearly 3 million total votes cast for the two Democrats and 2.3 million total votes for the three Republicans. They might be bluer states, but they have Republican officials in office.
So what does all this mean about who shows up to vote in the fall? Is it a point of concern, or won’t it matter?
FiveThirtyEight ran a fairly thorough analysis of voter turnout in primaries vs. turnout in the general, as well as the eventual election result, and concluded that the early voter number difference didn’t amount to much.
Democrats shouldn’t worry. Republicans shouldn’t celebrate. As others have pointed out, voter turnout is an indication of the competitiveness of a primary contest, not of what will happen in the general election. The GOP presidential primary is more competitive than the Democratic race. Indeed, history suggests that there is no relationship between primary turnout and the general election outcome.
Turnout in closed primaries is going to be different from turnout in states with open primaries. Turnout in caucuses is going to be much smaller still. Traditionally red states will see more Republicans turn out to vote in primaries, while Democratic voters will vote in higher numbers in primaries in traditionally blue states.
Also, “People turn out to vote when they think their vote may make a difference,” the FiveThirtyEight analysis said. Perhaps the GOP race has passed the point of competitiveness, as GOP voters (but not the GOP establishment) see Donald Trump as the inevitable nominee. Or maybe voters just didn’t like Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s boring countenance or couldn’t stand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, even though he now has a singing running mate in Carly Fiorina.
Oh, what the heck—I’ll ruin your day, in case you haven’t seen and heard this already. Steven Colbert suggested that it was as if Disney gave the evil queen her own song.
Trump loves to brag about the “millions” of voters he’s bringing to the polls—disaffected Democrats, independents, and new, energized voters. No doubt you’ve heard and read those claims in news stories across a variety of media, with the inevitable NPR interview of “some guy who never voted before.” It’s true that overall voting in GOP primaries is higher, and some of that is likely due to Trump, but that doesn’t mean all of those voters are Trump supporters—some of them very well may be voting against him. A Los Angeles Times story pretty much debunks the “millions of new voters” theory. “Increased primary turnout usually means exciting existing partisans, not creating new ones. Exit polls indicate that’s what has happened this year, as in previous turnout surges in both parties.”
So what about voter enthusiasm? Ratings for the televised GOP debates were much higher than ratings for Democratic debates, even as the Dem debates were scheduled for times with lower viewing rates, such as the Saturday before Christmas. “The Democratic debates have drawn on average about 9.2 million viewers, while the Republican debates have brought in roughly 16.2 million per forum,” says a Wall Street Journal blog post. But much of that could be chalked up to the Trump curiosity factor (especially at the beginning), media overreach, and the huge GOP field of candidates.
Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders certainly have had the biggest rallies. Some of the long-gone GOP candidates had such poor turnout at their events that they were forced to quickly switch to smaller venues. Poor former Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley had one person show up at an event in Iowa (to be fair, there was a snowstorm).
Early on, the media were all over the enthusiasm gap, sure that it spelled doom and gloom for Democrats. Politico, quoting two different pollsters in a December 2015 story, reported, “Thirty-six percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they were ‘very enthusiastic’ about voting for president next year, compared with just 19 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.”
By March, however, Gallup was telling us that the candidates with the highest voter enthusiasm were Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trumpeters were reporting a 65 percent rate of high enthusiasm, while those saying “Hill yes” weighed in at 54 percent of high enthusiasm. The rate for Sanders supporters was 44 percent, and rates for Cruz and Kasich were in the 30s. Gallup added this caveat: “Voter enthusiasm is not necessarily a good indicator of voter turnout.”
Actually, a Google search shows these same trends—often using the same phrases in stories—every election cycle. Republicans had the enthusiasm edge in 2012, numerous stories reported, yet President Obama won re-election handily.
What else can we look at? How about voter registration? Hispanic voter registration is surging, according to the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials. Hispanic voter projections for 2016 are for 13.1 million Hispanics to vote nationwide, compared with 11.2 million in 2012 and 9.7 million in 2008. Those votes are not likely to go to the candidate who wants to build a wall. “Only about 48 percent of eligible Hispanics vote, but nearly 80 percent of registered Hispanics go to the ballot box,” said a story in The Hill. Ever since Trump’s candidacy took off, Hispanic leaders nationwide started upping the push for more voter registration. There are many anecdotal reports of immigrants applying for citizenship just so they can register to vote against Trump.
What about registration for African-American voters? Local, state, and national groups such as Black and Brown People Vote are working to boost registration and turnout across the country, even as those same voters face higher hurdles to register in several states because of Republican-led voter suppression efforts, such as voter ID laws.
Finally, what about party registration? The debates about open and closed primaries were a wake-up call for many registered voters. But registration is still higher for those choosing to register as independent voters rather than as Democrats or Republicans, and that trend has widened since the mid-2000s, according to the Pew Research Center. The independent trend is especially strong among millennials. Despite a wealth of polling data measuring attitudes toward the two parties, those data don’t always transfer to voting, and party registration data vary state by state.
So who’s going to vote in November, and for whom? As I suggested at the beginning: We need to take any predictions right now with truckloads of salt.
Originally published on Daily Kos, May 1, 2016.