The Slatest

What Does Voter Turnout Really Tell Us?

A poll worker points away from a line of people standing outside on a sunny day.
A poll worker directs voters outside a library in Burbank, California, during Super Tuesday. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

As the votes roll in from 14 states and one U.S. territory on Super Tuesday, anxious Democrats will be looking for signs everywhere: hints that their preferred candidate has the momentum, indications that the party won’t end up with a brokered convention, and proof that the party’s eventual candidate can beat Donald Trump.

Some of those signs will surely come from voter turnout. Four states have held primaries or caucuses this year, and each had its own turnout story. Iowa’s turnout was lower than expected, but up slightly from 2016. New Hampshire’s turnout was above 2016, similar to 2012, and even higher than 2008—the year often cited for setting records across the country (though there are now more eligible voters in the state). Nevada had more voters than in 2016 but fell far short of 2008. And South Carolina saw surprisingly high turnout, with numbers almost matching 2008. But what does primary turnout data really tell us?

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Not much, according to several political scientists. While a radical groundswell of support for a candidate from a traditionally underrepresented demographic would be a promising sign, just about anything else would be relatively meaningless.

There are two broad questions when looking at voter turnout in early primaries: What does this mean for the rest of the primary election? And what does this mean for the general election?

In the primary, it’s not simple. As pundits and forecasters are quick to tell you, each state has its own dynamics. Race and age matter, as does the political history of a state. Iowa, where political participation is a proud tradition, will be different than, say, Mississippi, which typically has lower voter turnout. The candidate’s own regional identity will often be a factor, possibly creating a spike for the local candidate that might contradict other voting patterns. Not much is universal, and high or low turnout in one state can’t necessarily predict a candidate’s performance in the contests to come.

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Turnout doesn’t offer much more clarity for the general election. Trump has no serious competition, so those who show up to vote for the president do so more as a symbolic gesture. That means it’s hard to predict comparative turnout for the general election. High Democratic turnout in a state that’s still predicted to go Republican—South Carolina, for example—isn’t that meaningful in a practical sense. Things like a fragmented slate of candidates could also depress turnout. And it’s not easy to match one election to another, so there’s hardly any use trying to map 2020 onto 2016 or 2008. Ultimately, there’s just not enough data to know if there’s a real relationship between primary and general election turnout.

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In the first four contests of this election cycle, though, one consistent narrative has emerged. Nothing so far has pointed to a large, organic surge from young people that would shift the Democratic coalition, which could be a bad sign for Bernie Sanders, who has promised to significantly grow the base. Surveys often say that young people are particularly excited about Sanders, but according to Anthony Fowler, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, it’s unlikely that they will actually turn out in high enough numbers to shift the whole conversation. “Every election, someone talks about how that might be disrupted by some new candidate or some new force, and generally speaking, the patterns are pretty predictable,” he said. Barack Obama brought out black voters in higher numbers, but even then the shift wasn’t that dramatic. “If you were expecting a candidate to dramatically transform the voting population such that the typical patterns don’t hold, that’s a big ask. And we’ve never really seen anything like that before.”

To a certain extent, Democrats should take comfort in the fairly normal behavior we’re seeing. It might signal that a lot of Democrats are satisfied with any of the candidates and will vote for whomever the nominee is.

Thanks to Meredith Rolfe at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Bernard Fraga at Indiana University.

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