How much does primary turnout tell us about general election turnout? Not much.

Given the garbage fire that has been the Republican primary campaign, one of the few things Reince Priebus and Donald Trump are both happy about is that turnout for their nominating contests has been higher than usual. By contrast, turnout for the Democratic primaries is lower this year than it was in 2008.

Taken together, this is leading some observers — mostly Republicans — to suggest or even conclude that Republican enthusiasm is higher than Democratic enthusiasm, and therefore Democrats will be at a disadvantage in November.

There is little evidence to support this conclusion.


As Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende explained at about this time during the 2012 cycle, when Republicans were wringing their hands over lower-than-2008 levels of turnout in their primaries, “participation in presidential primaries is driven by close contests with multiple candidates vying for the vote.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the multiple candidates in question are particularly strong — the 1988 Democratic primary had higher turnout than any Republican primary in history, but Dukakis still lost — it just means that the race is close and people (accurately) perceive that their vote matters more. As Trende continued:

The candidates in front of Reagan's Air Force One, screenshot via YouTube

The Republican field in front of Reagan’s Air Force One, screenshot via YouTube

There are plenty of other tidbits we can examine: Republican turnout was up substantially in 1992 and 1996, and yet the Republican share of the two-party vote declined. No one remembers Bob Dole firing up the GOP base. In 2000, Republican primary turnout exceeded Democratic primary turnout for the first time ever, and yet Democrats won the popular vote. In 2004, Democratic participation in primaries was lower than at any time since the 1970s, and yet John Kerry came within a few points of winning the presidency.

In 2012, low turnout in the Republican primaries may have correlated with Mitt Romney being a weak and uninspiring candidate, but it wasn’t caused by that. The more likely explanation, as Trende suggested, was that the 2012 Republican primaries weren’t particularly close. While a series of not-Romneys emerged over the course of the campaign, Romney locked up the establishment backing early and was the prohibitive favorite to win his party’s nomination at this point four years ago.

The same dynamic is playing out this year on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton may not be a particularly inspiring candidate, but she is the prohibitive favorite to lock up the Democratic nomination. Given the choice between the two, I’d point to the latter as an explanation for why turnout is down relative to 2008, when Clinton and then-Senator Obama ran neck and neck into May.

On the Republican side, however, Donald Trump’s dominance of the nominating contests is being undercut by the fact that the Republican Party is desperately trying to deny him a majority of pledged delegates heading into the convention. Marco Rubio and John Kasich have more or less admitted that denying Trump a simple majority in hopes of winning the nomination on the convention floor is their only path to victory; Mitt Romney has stoked those rumors, as well. This means that while Trump’s poll numbers and vote shares are rivaling those of Romney’s in 2012, the Republican race is still being hotly contested. Yes, Donald Trump is an attention-grabbing cult of personality whose supporters are extremely excited to turn out for, but if he were being treated like the presumptive nominee that his position would normally suggest, fewer people would feel the need to actually show up and cast ballots for him.

These circumstances tell us a lot about why turnout is what it is in the parties’ respective primaries, but they tell us very, very little about what voter turnout will look like in a Trump/Clinton general election. A more telling predictor is the fact that the general election is likely to be polarized to epic proportions, which on balance has been shown to increase turnout, among other forms of political participation. The causal story for this jives with everything we know about rational political behavior: When voters perceive a greater difference between two candidates, there are greater benefits and costs associated with the outcome of the election. This increases the incentive to cast a ballot for one candidate or the other.

You don’t have to think that Hillary Clinton is the Messiah, or have voted for her in the spring, to feel that it’s really important for Donald Trump to lose in the fall. Republicans want to believe that having higher turnout in the primaries means they will have higher turnout in the general election. That thinking is wishful at best. The relationship simply isn’t there.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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