Turnout numbers are worth watching in every election cycle, but when it comes to voter participation in presidential primaries and caucuses, 2016 has put a brighter spotlight than usual on this for a couple of reasons. The first is that the fact that Republican participation has soared this year, with most states seeing record-breaking turnout.
The second reason is the significance Bernie Sanders’ campaign has put on the issue in recent months. The Vermont senator has said he has a unique ability to generate progressive excitement and boost turnout rates that will put him in the White House and help Democrats and up and down the ballot. So far, however, Sanders has fallen short on this front – turnout has actually dropped in nearly every state that’s hosted a primary or caucus so far this year.
And for some observers, this dynamic is an alarming sign for Democrats looking ahead to November. If Republican votes are turning out in droves, and Democratic voters are largely staying on the sidelines, the conventional wisdom suggests the GOP may enjoy a general-election advantage.
But is that true? Does the party with stronger primary turnout generally fare better in the fall? FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten took a closer look:
…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.
In the modern primary era, both parties have held competitive nominating contests in the same cycle six times. In half of them (1976, 1992, and 2008), the party with the higher turnout went on to win the national popular vote, while in the other half (1980, 1988, and 2000), the opposite happened.
But wait, there’s more.
The same FiveThirtyEight piece went on to ask, “Could it be that what matters is the change in turnout from the last time there was a competitive primary?”
As it turns out, no: in the modern primary era, there’s just no evidence of a correlation. In 1988, Democratic turnout went up while Republican turnout went down, but the GOP still won the presidency. Four years later, Democratic turnout went down while Republican turnout went up, but Dems won the presidency. In 2000, Dems saw a sharp drop while GOP turnout saw a large increase, but the Democratic candidate still won the popular vote on Election Day.
To be sure, the fact that Republicans are breaking records across much of the country this year is impressive. But if the party believes this will translate into a GOP advantage in the fall, history suggests Republicans may need to look elsewhere.