Same Song, Different Verse: Dems Continue to See Low Turnout in Primaries

This post was written by Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart

Many in the media were quick to declare the results of Tuesday’s elections as good news for Democrats. (Clearly, Democrats are desperate for any type of “good” news when the loss of one White House backed incumbent Senator, and the forcing of another incumbent Senator into a runoff is considered good news.) However, the news was not all good for Dems, as the lackluster Dem turnout we saw in Ohio and North Carolina appeared once again in Pennsylvania.

While the Pennsylvania Dem primary between Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak attracted national attention and featured millions of dollars in spending on ads by both candidates, many Pennsylvania Democrats chose to stay home rather than vote for either candidate in the primary. With over 99% of precincts reporting, 1,045,520 people had turned out to vote in the Dem Senate primary. This is close to a 200,000 vote drop off from the 2002 Dem gubernatorial primary between now Senator Bob Casey and now Governor Ed Rendell. Given the increase in Dem registration numbers in Pennsylvania since 2002, the drop off is even sharper, with turnout going from 33% in 2002 to just 24% in 2010. By percentage, turnout was actually higher on the Republican side yesterday, with 26.2% of registered Republicans turning out to vote, despite the lack of a competitive statewide primary.

In fairness to Democrats, the turnout news was better in Kentucky, where 32.2% of registered Dems turned out to vote in the competitive Dem Senate race, a significant boost from the 21.9% turnout in the Dem governor primary three years ago. However, Republicans in Kentucky saw a similar boost with 33.7% of registered Republicans voting in the GOP Senate primary, compared to just 19.8% in the 2007 primary.

With their win in PA 12, there certainly was some good news for Democrats yesterday. However, the emerging pattern of low primary turnout in key 2010 states like Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania is a problem that has the potential to hurt Democrats hopes in November far more than one special election win can help.

Public Opinion Strategies