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The Primary Turnout Story: Presidential Races Miss Record High

Average voter turnout in the 2008 presidential primaries rose to its second-highest level ever, falling just a half percentage point short of its apex in 1972. Average voter turnout in the statewide primaries that did not occur on the same day as presidential primaries—primaries for governor and U.S. senator—fell to a record low, according to a report released today by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE). 

“The level of presidential primary turnout speaks to the intense interest in this year’s presidential election. The turnout level for the other primaries speaks to the poor health of American democracy and the diminishing religion of civic duty. That combination makes it difficult to predict the level of turnout in what is still likely to be a high turnout in November’s general election,” said Curtis Gans, director of CSAE.

The report, which looked at turnout in the 2008 presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate primaries, is based on final and official primary results.

Among the report’s findings:

Turnout in the presidential primaries reached 57,348,121 or 30.3 percent of the eligible citizen electorate, only slightly lower than the all-time high of 30.9 percent recorded in 1972.

Turnout in the 11 statewide primaries (for governor/and or U.S. Senator) that were held on the same day as presidential primaries was 12,174,783 or 26.5 percent of those eligible to vote, the highest since 1972 when the average turnout for similar primaries was 29 percent of the electorate.

But turnout in the 21 states which held primaries not on the same day as presidential primaries was only 7,977,418 or 14 percent of eligibles, the lowest ever. The previous low occurred in 2004 when an average of 14.9 percent of eligibles voted. Turnout in these two years was well below the 20 – 30 percent average who voted in previous presidential election year statewide primaries.

Of the 30 states that held presidential primaries in both parties, twenty-four surpassed all previous turnout records.

In the 11 states that had gubernatorial and/or U.S. Senate primaries for nominees of both major parties on the same day as the presidential primaries, three states—Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina—reached new high turnout records. Only one state—Idaho—set a new record low.

In the 21 states that had gubernatorial and/or senatorial primaries for nominees of both major parties on a day other than that when ballots were cast for presidential nominees, nine states—Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wyoming—saw their turnout rates fall to record lows. Delaware set a high turnout record, but there was only one comparable statewide primary held in a presidential election year in the last 44 years.

“Primaries tend to draw the active and interested of each major party,” Gans said. “As such, turnout in presidential primaries tends to be about half or fewer of the percentage which votes in the general election. There seems no question from these figures and polling data that, probably because of three factors—the deep and shared unhappiness with the direction of the country, the uniqueness of the two emergent candidates, and the closeness of the race—the Democrats, at least in the primary, expanded their base with a larger primary turnout of youth, African Americans, and Latinos, among others.

“But it is also clear, based on the data on primaries where the presidential contest was not there to draw participants, that sustaining interest in politics and involvement continues to decline and that the shared values of citizen responsibility which drew people to the polls, whether or not there was something important to decide at the top of the ballot, is gone.

“It is equally clear from these primaries that the phenomenon of enhanced youth participation in the primaries this year and the general election in 2004 is limited to college-educated youth, driven by the uniqueness and appeal of the Obama candidacy (2008) and hostility to President George W. Bush (2004); that there is no such thing as a new active millennial generation, and, if the enhanced level of young people’s participation this year is to be sustained, Obama needs to win and do things in office that both effectively address the nation’s problems and engage the active participation of young and old.”

Other findings in the report include:

In the presidential primaries, Democratic turnout exceeded Republican turnout 36,731,478 to 20,613,383 at least, in part, due to the fact that the Republican race ended three months before the Democratic race. But Democratic turnout averaged 19.4 percent of eligible voters, the highest since an average of 21.2 percent voted in 1972. GOP turnout averaged 10.8 percent of eligibles or about the same average as turnout in 2000 and below levels in 1980 and most primary seasons before that year.

In the presidential primaries, Democratic turnout records were set in 26 states, while the GOP recorded new records in 11. (See summary chart 3 for the states that set records).

In the gubernatorial and senatorial primaries held on the same day as the presidential primary, Democratic turnout was 8,452,406 of eligibles compared to the 3,881,991 who voted in similar Republican primaries. Turnout for the Democrats averaged 18.4 percent of eligibles as compared to 8.4 for the GOP. Three states—Indiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina—set new Democratic turnout records. The GOP recorded three record primary turnout highs, in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas, but it also recorded four record lows, in Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and West Virginia (all held after the race was decided).

A totally different picture emerges in the states that held their gubernatorial and senatorial primaries on days other than when the presidential primary was held. The difference between Democratic and Republican turnout was narrower—5,071,369 to 4,154,849. But in these primaries, no state recorded a record high turnout. In these Democratic primaries, 10 states (of 23)—Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wyoming—had record low turnout. In the GOP primaries, a slightly different list of 10 states (out of 23)—Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming—produced new low turnout records.