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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Touts GOP Turnout

In making the case for his electability in the general election, Donald Trump said that when it comes to primary voter turnout so far “the Democrats are down 35 percent, whereas the Republicans are up over 70 percent.”

Actually, both Republicans and Democrats are seeing higher primary voter turnouts compared with 2012.

But in fairness to Trump, a comparison with 2008 makes more sense, given it was the last time both parties had contested primaries at this stage. And by that measure, Trump is nearly accurate, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center of primary voter turnout for each party going back to 1980.

But 2008 was an outlier for Democrats, far outpacing primary voter turnout over the last several decades. With the exception of 2008, Democratic turnout this year is higher than any year since 1992. Meanwhile, Republican primary turnout is the highest it has been going back to at least 1980, when Pew began tracking primary voter turnout.

As for Trump’s larger point, experts warn there is no evidence that high primary turnout leads to general election success.

Trump made his claim about primary voter turnout on ABC’s “This Week,” in response to a question about the possibility of a brokered convention and whether the Republican Party ought to give Trump the nod even if he falls short of the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination on a first ballot.

Trump, March 20: The biggest story in all of politics are the millions of people that are coming out to vote for me, in all fairness, for the Republican Party. They’re up 75 percent, 72 percent, 102 percent, different states in the primaries. And it’s the single biggest story worldwide in politics, is what’s happening, the millions and millions of people that are going out to vote for me.

Now I will say this, the Democrats are down 35 percent, whereas the Republicans are up over 70 percent. And in some cases, much more than that.

We reached out to the Trump campaign asking where he got those figures, but we did not hear back. The best available data we could find on 2016 primary voter turnout comes from the Pew Research Center, which analyzed primary voter turnout as a share of eligible voters in primary states for presidential elections going back to 1980.

After long decline, primary turnout rebounds

As the graphic at right from the Pew Research Center shows, turnout is up for both Republicans and Democrats since the last election in 2012 — by 7.5 percentage points for Republicans and by 5.4 percentage points for Democrats.

But Barack Obama was an incumbent running unopposed in 2012, so Democratic primary turnout was understandably low (the lowest in the 10 election cycles studied).

The author of the Pew report, Drew DeSilver, told us the more valid comparison would be with 2008, when both parties had contested primaries. By that measure, Trump’s claim is generally accurate, he said.

Turnout totals vary widely from state to state, but take Ohio as an example. This year, about 1.2 million people voted in the Democratic primary. That’s about half as many as voted in the 2008 Democratic primary. Republicans, meanwhile, saw turnout rise from nearly 1.1 million people in 2008 to nearly 2 million this year.

Republican turnout is, so far, the highest of any year since at least 1980. (That could change if Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz were to obtain enough delegates to secure the nomination — as primary voting typically drops off significantly after that.)

As for Democratic turnout, it is not nearly as high as 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squared off in a tight race for the Democratic nomination. But other than 2008, it is higher than any year since 1992. In other words, Democratic primary turnout this year is doing a bit better than was typical in the three elections before the 2008 aberration.

So what to make of the Republican surge in primary voting? Not much, says Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Elections Research Center. Burden penned a piece explaining that for the Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog under the headline, “Will record Republican turnout in the primaries translate into a Trump win in November? Probably not. Here’s why.”

“There is no relationship we can discern between turnout for the primary and caucuses and how one does in the general election,” Burden told us in a phone interview.

Burden’s conclusion was echoed in an analysis of primary voter turnout by FiveThirtyEight, posted under the self-explanatory headline, “Primary Turnout Means Nothing For The General Election.” FiveThirtyEight noted that in the six elections in which both parties had competitive primaries, going back to 1976, the party that had the highest primary turnout won the popular vote in the general election three times and lost three times. The analysis also found that in four of five elections, the party with the larger raw increase in primary voter turnout from the previous election lost the popular vote in the general election. And in terms of percentage change, the party whose primary turnout improved the most won the popular vote in the general election only two out of five times.

There are examples that back up Trump’s point, such as in 2008, when very high Democratic turnout preceded a Democratic victory in the November general election. But there are as many instances when the reverse happened. In 1988, for example, Democrats had a much higher primary turnout than Republicans, but the Republican, George H.W. Bush handily defeated the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, in the general election.

In other words, Burden said, “There’s no relationship at all.”

Sometimes, high primary turnout is driven by enthusiasm for opposing candidates in a tight race. That was the case in 2008 when voters were choosing between the potential for the first woman president or the first African American, Burden said. Other times, though, it can be a sign of party turmoil, which can spell trouble in a general election, he said.

Republicans are setting records now for primary turnout, Burden said, and some of that is enthusiasm for the candidates. But some of it, he said, is being driven by a desire among some to stop Trump from getting the nomination.

Burden further cautioned that comparing primary turnout across elections is difficult because turnout depends largely on factors such as when a candidate gets enough delegates to secure a party’s nomination. If a candidate secures early, primary voting drops off significantly, and can therefore affect the complete primary voting totals. Should the Republican or Democratic races remain undecided or tighten, Burden said, voter turnout in the primary should be very high until the end.