Is Democratic Voter Turnout Up? Not Really.

A Democratic Rush to the Polls? Well . . . (washingtonpost.com)
Interesting bit of data on the much-vaunted Democratic turnout. Turns out it’s overstated. I’ve been hearing about this for weeks and wondering about the significance. Doesn’t seem to amount to much since the numbers Democratic operatives have been spouting don’t take population changes into account and it isn’t a good indicator of general election turnout.

Democratic Party officials have been crowing about heavy voter turnout in the first nine primaries and caucuses. In a theme picked up widely by the news media, party types have said the voting totals indicate that Democratic voters are fired up, which bodes well for the eventual nominee’s chances against President Bush in the general election.

Is that really so? One answer: Maybe.

First off, the first few weeks of primaries may not foretell what’s going to happen in the dozens of primaries still to come. As Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) rolls up victories and the race becomes less competitive, turnout is likely to tumble.

Second, primary turnout is not a very reliable predictor of how many people show up to vote in November. The pattern over the years has been erratic, says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan outfit in Washington.

Besides which, it takes a bit of glass-half-full thinking to describe voter turnout this year as “high” or even a “record,” as Democratic officials routinely do. Growth in a state’s population may mean more people voted overall, but the percentage of eligible voters who actually bothered to go to the polls has been shrinking for years.

A record number of people went to the polls in Iowa, for example, but in percentage terms, the turnout of eligible voters was about the same as in 1988. In Oklahoma, twice as many people voted in the primary last week compared with 2000 — but that was only 12 percent of the eligible population, which represents a 30 percent decline from 1992 and 1988. Just 9.8 percent of eligible voters showed up in Missouri, again about a third fewer than in 1988. Arizona and Delaware turned out a dismal 6 percent of eligibles, neither close to a record.

The only solid evidence of a truly energized Democratic base was in New Hampshire, where both the absolute number of voters and the percentage of eligible voters set records on Jan. 27.

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