Primary Focus Report Highlights: Republicans Gain, Democrats Drop in 2016 Turnout

Posted by Molly Rockett, Demarquin Johnson on June 03, 2016

At FairVote, we have closely followed this year’s contests. We published blogs on second choice polling using Public Policy Polling (PPP) data of likely Republican voters. The data shed light on the potential impact of using ranked choice ballots in primary contests. Additionally, we have maintained a blog series to highlight FairVote reforms. “Primary Focus” delved into various topics, including seventeen year-old primary voting, meaningful access to early voting, and campaign civility. FairVote will continue our engagement in 2016 primary analysis by releasing a detailed report on turnout trends in 2016 compared to 2008, using both our own data and data from Michael P. McDonald's Election Project. The following blog presents highlights and summaries of this report in preview to its release. 

The complete report will analyze in greater detail the differences in turnout between open and closed primary states, states that have made changes to voter access laws, and differences in turnout between 2016 and 2008. The report draws upon the data in our Popular Vote Totals 2016 spreadsheet which tracks voter turnout, “wasted” votes cast for withdrawn candidates, and each candidate’s share of the total voting population. We have also created an additional spreadsheet to compare turnout in 2008 to 2016 and serve as the foundation for the comparative research in this report. 

The report analyzes data from the 29 states that have, as of June 1st, held both Republican and Democratic primaries in the 2008 and 2016 nomination seasons. Key findings and higlights include:

  • Overall Turnout is Flat

Overall turnout--the total votes cast divided by the total voting eligible population in the states in our data set--increased only .17% (from 30.33% to 30.50% of voting eligible population). With respect to the margin of error in estimating the voting eligible population for each state, overall turnout is considered unmoved. Hence, 2016 turnout numbers are holding steady with what was recorded in the historic 2008 election, yet still about half the turnout of a general election for president.

  • Republican Turnout Rises, Democratic Turnout Declines

While overall turnout barely changed, turnout within the two major parties’ primary contests diverged.  Across the states, Republican participation increased 53% (from 11% to 16% of voting eligible population), and Democratic participation decreased 26% (from 19% to 14% of voting eligible population). However, the record-breaking participation seen in 2008 for the Democratic nominee, President Barack Obama, likely contributed to the relative decline among Democratic turnout in this year’s contest.

  • Open Primaries have Effect in Republican and Democratic Turnout 

The mean increase in Republican turnout among open primary states (81%, from 11% to 19% of voting eligible population) is dramatically higher than the mean increase in Republican turnout among closed primary states (32%, from 9% to 12% of voting eligible population). The mean decrease in Democratic turnout among open primary states (25%, from 20% to 14% of voting eligible population) is lower than the mean decrease in Democratic turnout among closed primary states (14%, from 17% to 15% of voting eligible population). These factors, combined with unchanged overall turnout, provides evidence of both party switching and new voter participation.

  • Potential Turnout Impact in New Laws Reducing Voter Access

We examined mean turnout and change in mean turnout in the 29 states that have held primaries and introduced or toughened their voter ID laws since 2008 as comparable to those states that did not change their voter ID laws, but there are stark contrasts in the path Democratic turnout has taken. Total turnout in states with ID law changes was 32% and total turnout in states without ID law changes is 31%. Republican participation increased by an average of 46% in states that did not change their ID laws and 77% in states that introduced voter ID laws. In states that did not change their voter ID requirements since 2008, Democratic turnout declined 13% (from 20% to 16% of voting eligible population). States that increased their voter ID requirements since 2008 saw Democratic turnout plummet by 32% (6-point drop in turnout of voting eligible population), which is more than twice as much.

Are More People Voting?

There was a marginal increase of less than one-fifth of a percent in voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primaries in the states studied. In 2008, voter turnout was about 30.33%. In 2016, voter turnout was roughly 30.50%. In other words, 3 out of 10 eligible voters participated in a primary in each contest. America’s voting population grew proportionally with America’s voting eligible population.

However, it is significant to note that there was variation among the states. While voter turnout in the median state declined 1% since 2008, turnout in the mean state increased by 3%. This is because more states saw a decline in voter turnout than saw an increase. We found greater fluctuation in voter turnout in states with increases compared to states with decreases. Michigan, for example, had the largest increase in voter turnout with an increase of 70%.

Who Is Voting?

While overall turnout has remained relatively flat, there have been dramatic changes in voter turnout by political party. In almost every primary state, turnout among Democrats is down in 2016.  The percentage of the VEP participating in Democratic primaries decreased by almost 6 points in these states in 2016, dropping from 19% of VEP in 2008 to only 14% VEP in 2016, a 27% decrease in turnout. This means about 6,000,000 fewer Democratic primary participants.

The mean state saw a decrease of about 21% in Democratic participation since 2008. Democratic turnout in the 2008 contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was so unusually high that some comparative decline in 2016 was anticipated. With only 22.2 million votes cast so far, Democrats are unlikely to meet the the record 36.8 million votes cast in the 2008 nomination contests (unless a there is strong turnout among Californians in the Democratic Primary).

Among states that have voted, Texas and Indiana show the most substantial drop, with Democratic turnout decreasing by 57% and 53%, respectively. Texas is one of several states to have passed restrictive voter identification laws since the presidential primary in 2008. As shown in the chart below, Michigan is the only state where Democratic turnout increased. In that state, Democratic turnout doubled, increasing 100% since 2008, and breaking records that were set in 1972 during George McGovern’s primary loss to George Wallace. In at least two Michigan townships, clerks ran out of Democratic ballots at noon on Election Day, and had to request a second batch from the city clerk. Many attribute this record-breaking Democratic turnout to Bernie Sanders’ broad appeal among Michigan’s manufacturing centers with his message of skepticism towards free trade. Clinton and Sanders also held a high stakes debate just one day before the primary, in the city of Flint. The severe water crisis in Flint, which attracted national attention and drew forceful responses from both candidates, also may have boosted interest and turnout in the primary. Of course, also contributing to Michigan’s unusually high increase in 2016 is the unusually low turnout the state experienced in 2008. After holding caucuses in 2000 and 2004, Michigan held their first primary in 2008, and saw only 8% participation. Participation rose to 16% in 2016, certainly a significant increase, but also one that is in part determined by low turnout in 2008. In every other state, Democratic turnout decreased in 2016.

Among Republicans, the trend is exactly opposite. Republican turnout in almost every primary increased dramatically. Voter turnout in Republican primaries increased about 53% in 2016, rising from only 11% of VEP in 2008 to 16% this year. This means about 10 million more Republican Primary participants. In the mean Republican state, turnout increased 60%, while the median increase among Republican states was 48%. In four states, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Indiana and Rhode Island, Republican turnout more than doubled. In Mississippi alone, which held its primary on March 8th, Republican turnout rocketed up 179% compared to 2008. Some of this increase could be attributed to changes in the primary scheduling. In 2008, the state voted on March 11th, more than a month after Super Tuesday. This year, it held its primary only a week after Super Tuesday. While the date change could account for some of the turnout increases seen in that state, such a high increase in Republican participation is unlikely to be explained by that factor alone.

A confluence of factors, including competitiveness and Donald Trump’s draw as an outsider candidate, likely converged to produce in Mississippi an extreme example of a trend seen across the country in 2016: Republican turnout increased dramatically, Democratic turnout decreased, and overall turnout changed very little.

Change in Presidential Primary Turnout


Addendum: Methodology

In this report, we consider the data from all states that have, as of June 1st, held primaries in both 2008 and in 2016 for both major parties. Of the 42 states in which primaries have taken place as of the publishing of this report, we have narrowed our analysis to only 29. We exclude states like Idaho, where only Republicans host primaries, while Democrats host caucuses. We also exclude states like West Virginia, where parties used different methods of nomination in 2008 and 2016. Both parties in West Virginia held primaries in 2016, but in 2008 the Republicans held a caucus. Caucuses are fundamentally different from primaries in terms of their format and the voter turnout they yield, and so it would be misleading to compare any caucus to a primary.

Additionally, we used only data from the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, when both parties had an open field for the presidential nomination. We decided to exclude the 2012 race from our analysis because the Democrats had no competitive primary in that year, and thus did not hold any contests that could be usefully compared to 2008 or 2016. Instead, we used 2008 as a baseline for both parties in all states.

We defined voter turnout as the number of ballots cast over the voting eligible population (VEP). VEP is an estimate of the total population eligible to vote calculated by Michael P. McDonald. The measure takes estimates of the citizen population aged eighteen and over from the U.S. Census Bureau and, according to laws in each state, subtracts estimates of the number of ineligible felons and the mentally incapacitated.  We defined overall turnout as the total number of ballots cast for Democrats, Republicans, and third party candidates in all 29 states in our study, divided by the total VEP in those 29 states.

We used two sources of data. First, we collected the ballots cast for each party and the voting eligible population for each state in 2008 from the Election Project data on that primary. We collected the same information for 2016 from FairVote’s own compilation of popular vote and turnout data in primaries so far this year, which is based on data provided by each state’s Secretary of State.

Image Source: Yahoo/Joe Raedle

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