March 8, 2016

So far, turnout in this year’s primaries rivals 2008 record

This year’s presidential nominating season has upended conventional political wisdom in any number of ways – from the dominance of Donald Trump on the GOP side to the surprisingly tough battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. The keenly contested races also are driving record turnout among Republicans and higher than usual turnout among Democrats.

After long decline, primary turnout reboundsThrough the first 12 primaries of 2016, combined Republican turnout has been 17.3% of eligible voters – the highest of any year since at least 1980. Democratic turnout so far is 11.7% – the highest since 1992, with the notable exception of the extraordinarily high turnout in 2008. (Those figures may change, of course, depending on how the rest of the campaign plays out; history suggests that once one party’s nomination is locked up, turnout in subsequent contests tends to fall off.)

Turnout in presidential primaries varies considerably among states, and typically is lower in years when an incumbent faces no serious challenge for renomination. But looking at overall turnout rates since 1980, certain trends were clear: Combined major-party turnout fell from 25.7% in 1980 to 14.7% in 2004, before rebounding in 2008. Much of that was due to declining turnout in Democratic primaries; GOP turnout, by contrast, was relatively stable from 1980 through 2012, averaging about 10% in years with contested nominations and dipping to 7% or lower in uncontested years.

But even in relatively high-turnout years such as 2008 – and, so far, 2016 – primaries attract far fewer voters than general elections, even though (barring a contested convention) they determine whom voters get to choose from come November. In 2012, for instance, 129.1 million Americans, or 53.6% of the estimated voting-age population, cast ballots in the presidential election, versus fewer than 28 million in that year’s primaries. In 2008, 131.4 million people (56.9% of the estimated voting-age population) voted for president in the general election, more than twice the “record” number of primary voters that year.

For this analysis, we calculated primary turnout as the number of votes reported cast in state party primaries divided by the estimated number of voting-age citizens (derived from our analysis of Current Population Survey data) for all of the primary-holding states. We began with 1980, because primaries didn’t become a significant part of the nominating process until after 1968, and available turnout data for 1972 and population data for 1976 were incomplete.

A few caveats: Because states don’t always hold both Democratic and Republican primaries, the total turnout rates for the two parties individually may not equal overall turnout. We didn’t calculate turnout for Puerto Rico and other territories, because the CPS doesn’t include them. Nor did we try to measure turnout in caucus states, because caucus attendance isn’t always reliably recorded and reported. We did, however, include both binding and nonbinding (or “advisory”) primaries.

In general, far more people say they’ll vote in primaries than actually do (as late-night host Jimmy Kimmel recently demonstrated). In a Pew Research Center survey from September 2015, for instance, nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents said it was “very likely” they would vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary or caucus in their state. So far this year, however, the highest turnout in any state primary has been in New Hampshire: 52.8% of that state’s estimated voting-age citizens cast ballots in either the Democratic (24.7%) or Republican (28.1%) primary.

New Hampshire, which fiercely protects its status as the nation’s first primary, has led the nation in overall (Republican plus Democratic) primary turnout in all but one election year since 1992 (Montana edged it out by seven-hundredths of a percentage point in 2004).

The 2008 Democratic race, in which Clinton and Barack Obama were closely matched and battled to the very last primaries and caucuses, stands out as an anomaly, with overall turnout of nearly 20% – the highest level among either party in any election year since 1980. This year’s GOP race, though, appears to be at least challenging that mark: Of the dozen Republican primaries so far this year, 10 have set turnout records.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that because turnout rates in primaries are relatively low, candidates can win their party’s nomination with relatively few votes. In 2012, for example, nearly 18.8 million people voted in 39 Republican primaries, or 9.8% of the eligible voters in those states. Mitt Romney won 30 states (plus D.C.) with just over 9.8 million votes – representing just 5.1% of the eligible voters in the primary states.

Topics: 2016 Election, Elections and Campaigns

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

44 Comments

  1. Carlos Zevallos7 months ago

    The article states “52.8% of that state’s [NH] estimated voting-age citizens cast ballots in either the Democratic (24.7%) or Republican (28.1%) primary.

    Mr. Drew Desilver, that must be mistaken.

    According to popular vote totals, ~208,500 people voted in the Republican NH primary, while ~246,500 people voted in democratic NH primary. If you’re talking about the same pool of voters (which you imply with the 52.8% figure), then it must be the other way around. It’s an important correction considering NH s status as battleground state.

  2. Anonymous7 months ago

    The date is wrong at the top of the page. March 8th is tomorrow.

  3. sinnathamby sundaralingam7 months ago

    2008 and 2016 primaries are historic and will go into the records as it brought great democratic changes in the history USA elections.

  4. Mike Almond7 months ago

    I assume “eligible voters” excludes Independents? Which according to the Pew report: people-press.org/2015/04/07/a-de…
    is a larger percentage of the total than either political party alone?

    Even given that the number of “independents” is squishy, consisting in part of people who lean one way or the other, there are signs of rapidly increasing dissatisfaction from a large group of ‘independents’ (millennials in particular) who don’t want either political party to prevail.
    citywatchla.com/index.php/world-…

    of course, in this most un-American of “campaigns”, independents are barred from having any voice at all:
    citywatchla.com/index.php/world-…

  5. Anonymous8 months ago

    The truth is nothing can stop Hillary. Those who have supported the Clinton Wave since Arkansas, know that. Sure, the other side is making some noise this year. But, the Electoral College already knows who’ll be in the Whitehouse on January 20, 2017. Watch and see! Whether we vote or not, it’s already a done deal. And, for the record, I’m not voting in November. I have other plans that are far more important. Our family’s 150th consecutive down home (deep in the country) reunion and bar-b-q will be happening far away from the cities we each hail from, and we’ll all watch the election go down on a dish driven big screen.
    “If ya think Willie was slick, ya ain’t seen nothing yet. Who ya think taught him?”

    1. Pete Maxwell8 months ago

      Really? In a staggering majority conservative nation like America, where those that consider themselves right of center outnumber those out the left by almost 3 to 1, your contrived faux confidence is borderline amusing. I usually don’t respond to leftist whistle past the graveyard cheerleaders like yourself…. But really.? The numbers just aren’t there. Period. You can’t dispute it. When the presumptive Republican candidate is pulling more individual votes than both Democrats (Bernie and hillary) combined.. Where do you even pretend to have a chance. I hate to be lockstep with basically every pundit and political scientist out there… But I have to.. It’s a wonder that the Democrats are even wasting their time this cycle. They don’t stand a snowballs chance in he’ll. (Thank you Obama! Lowest approval rating since Jimmy Carter) theyre basically just going through the motions. As far the American voter is concerned, the Republican candidate could stomp a puppy to death on live TV, and still win, as long as theyre not a democrat. In fact, the single biggest handicap for any potential candidate post Obama is simply having a “D” after your name on a ballot. Its an automatic disqualifier to most Americans. (mic drop)

      1. Anonymous7 months ago

        Mic drop? Seriously? You are wrong. America is not a “staggeringly majority nation”. From another PEW research article:

        “Based on 2014 data, 39% identify as independents, 32% as Democrats and 23% as Republicans.

        When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, 48% either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; 39% identify as Republicans or lean Republican. The gap in leaned party affiliation has held fairly steady since 2009, when Democrats held a 13-point advantage (50% to 37%).”

        1. David Lewis7 months ago

          I don’t know about Republican VS. Democrat but if you look at conservative vs liberal, then there are definitely more conservatives according to Gallup (gallup.com/poll/180452/liberals-…)

          “Conservatives continued to outnumber moderates and liberals in the U.S. population in 2014, as they have since 2009. However, their 14-percentage-point edge over liberals last year, 38% vs. 24%, is the smallest in Gallup’s trends since 1992”

          There are also approximately 11% who self identify as libertarian and, as a general rule, libertarians lean more conservative then liberal. If we add 75% of libertarians, then that 8.25 percent of the population would put the conservatives to 46.25% or almost 2 to 1 over the ones who claim to be liberal. (fyi my sources include Gallup, IBD, pew research, the Hill, and Huntington Post so I am not sticking to just one side of the argument.) Which goes to prove something I have been saying for a while, if we had 100% voter turnout, we probably would never have a Democratic president again.

      2. Anonymous7 months ago

        I don’t know where you get your facts from but wherever the source is it needs some updating
        The U.S. Hasn’t been a 3:1 majority of conservatives for some time now
        In fact, the distribution is so close between right of center and left of center it’s virtually impossible to tell on which side the majority lies.
        What is clear is that the far left and the far right are becoming louder and louder
        How this will change the balance of minority/ majority ideology is not known

      3. Anonymous7 months ago

        Wow, what have you been smoking?? Are you talking about the same election we are talking about? The Republicans are being overrun by an actual Independent/Liberal and they can’t stop the run away train. Even the party leaders are terrified Trump will win. He is a nut and with all the votes he is getting it certainly proves the dumbing down of America has been successful.

      4. Sue Benoit7 months ago

        I really hope you are right, otherwise we are doomed to repeat past failures, and find some newer and bigger ones.

      5. Carlos Zevallos7 months ago

        Sorry to break it to you sue, but the jokester above is dead wrong. As someone else pointed out, he is COMPLETELY making up the 3:1 right-left ratio claim. Additionally he’s 8s completely making up the Trump vs Hillary primary vote. For obvious reasons hillary has more votes considering she only faced one other candidate… 12 million to trumps 10.5 million (realclearpolitics.com/epolls/201…). But far more damming is the electoral college vote advantage for Democrats (washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/…). Sorry but the odds are really stacked against you folk.

      6. Anonymous7 months ago

        The record shows that 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections were won by the popular vote cast by the Democratic party

    2. Anonymous7 months ago

      wrong

    3. Anonymous7 months ago

      ever heard of an “absentee vote”. Not voting is a vote for the other candidate.

      1. Patty La Chapelle7 months ago

        maybe that is a good thing…

      2. Anonymous7 months ago

        If the Clinton “Wave” is so strong since Arkansas, what happened in the 2007 primary’s when she was shellacked by BHO?

      3. l taylor7 months ago

        Its a half of a vote mr. or mrs. knowitallwannabe. If you are so blasted sure of your predictions why the anonymous?

    4. Eric Schenkel7 months ago

      are there any updated numbers to this based on the most recent primaries as of today (May?)

  6. Daryl Mercantini8 months ago

    Sanders tried to attack Clinton in the last debate. Reminiscent of the attack she endured when she ran for senator of N.Y. only to come out stronger then winning.. Is she experiencing the same phenomenon as the Donald ????? Her victory speech in N.Y. was much more enthusiast and inclusive than Donalds and it would seem better at articulating her plan all be it as communist as Sanders.

    1. Herima Anthony7 months ago

      She’s good with articulation, very good 🙂
      1. youtu.be/NOr4NNraBBE
      2.youtube.com/watch?v=Weyl_oXPq_A
      3https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C25zuFaelhg

  7. Anonymous8 months ago

    Can’t get a straight answer from anyone. How many people voted on the democrat side, and how many voted on the republican side for 2016

    1. Rick Nelson8 months ago

      It’s incredible. I’ve searched over an hour for the total presidential primary votes and so far there’s nothing.

      Not Ballotpedia, Pew, DKos, nor Google search has an answer. Very frustrating. I want to know what the get out the vote totals are like! Very, very important.

      What’s making this so difficult to discover?! Suppression of information, or no one has asked before (yeah riiiiight!)?!

      1. Antonio C. Mesquita7 months ago

        I just did it and nothing came out. Mark Levine i think have something o yesterday or Tuesday on his new Web TV Show about that. I’m not a subscriber yet so I didn’t watch it.

      2. Jimmy Dell7 months ago

        I also did as you and couldn’t find real numbers. We can’t be the only ones seeking this info. What’s the big secret? The question seems elementary.

    2. Bill Kenneke8 months ago

      This has vote totals (except the caucus numbers are weird so I don’t know how they count them): politico.com/2016-election/resul…

      Here is voter turnout for the southern states: southernstudies.org/2016/03/2016…

      Still looking for turnout data for the rest.

    3. Anonymous8 months ago

      22,296,473 on the Republican side so far. Democratic side is a mystery because some (D) caucuses don’t release the actual vote number, but rather the number of delegates only.

    4. Anonymous8 months ago

      Agree, apparently those data would be too informative. So none of the media experts (read egocentric morons) allegedly informing us have bothered to add up the numbers.

    5. Anonymous8 months ago

      realclearpolitics.com/epolls/201…

      At the top you can also switch to Democratic primary as well. 🙂

  8. Anonymous8 months ago

    If voter turn out for 2008 was higher for Rep then Dem 9.8 to 6.3 how did we end up with Obama?

    1. Anonymous8 months ago

      Primary turnout is significantly lower than general election turnout.

    2. Anonymous8 months ago

      Because Obama was an incumbent. You don’t hold primaries when your party is in office.

      1. Anonymous8 months ago

        How was Obama an incumbent in 2008. He was an incumbent in 2012. He was a senator in 2008. I too wish to find the NUMBERS of voters who voted in the NY Primary as a total for both GOP and DEM.

        1. Anonymous8 months ago

          According to what I saw…Reps had just under 1/2 million votes. DEMS had just under TWO MILLION. NEW YORK will not help reps win a General.

        2. Anonymous7 months ago

          I had all the figures and posted them on FB but I will give you a ballpark figure for NY. Trump got over 500,000
          Hillary got a little over 1 million
          Sanders for a little over 750,000

          1. Anonymous6 months ago

            that was an open or closed primary?
            how would the Independents have voted?
            how many GOP crossover votes for Sanders?

    3. Anthony Lee8 months ago

      Those percentages are for 2012. In 2008, democratic turnout was 19.5 vs 11 for republican

  9. regina connors8 months ago

    According to a recent Gallup survey, 42% of registered voters are Independent which means that in most states they can’t vote in a primary. Some states, notably New York make it unnecessarily difficult to switch parties in order to participate in a primary. New York requires that a voter already registered to vote (i.e. not a new voter) to switch his/her affiliation by the beginning of October of the previous year in order to vote in the primary.

    There are plenty of people who want to vote in primaries who are prohibited by state party rules from doing so.

    My sense is that you didn’t take this into account when you came up with these figures. This neither addresses the percentage of eligible voters who are registered nor the percentage of registered voters that are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Without that information, this isn’t really telling me anything.

    1. Daryl Mercantini8 months ago

      Will they vote to stop the dem smear machine.. That’s the real total that matters

  10. Cindy Kilkenny9 months ago

    Yes to an update! Wonderful work.

  11. Reinhard Joelli9 months ago

    Is there an update available, now that we have many more than the first 12 primaries under our belt, I think that would be very interesting. Thank you, Reinhard

  12. Jim Cain9 months ago

    I knew voting in the USA was a low percentage, but it really amazes me how very few actually go to their polling place. I wonder what “eligible voter” means. You ARE registered to vote but don’t bother? Or you COULD be registered (old enough, a citizen)? Very informative in either case. Thanks for the report, Mr. DeSilver.

  13. cai foyd9 months ago

    it helped for my english class , thank you

  14. David Simmons9 months ago

    Excellent analysis Drew. Thanks for all of your great work.