Trump's Electoral Myth: Why His Claim to Bring in Lots of New Voters Can't Be Projected for November

After winning big on Super Tuesday, Donald Trump not only made the eyebrow-raising assertion that he would unify Republicans, he also took credit for driving up voter turnout in 2016’s GOP primaries, boasting that he was outperfroming Democrats and that the GOP was “going to be a much bigger party.”

Like most claims from Trump, this was more carnival barker than factual. It is true that Republican voters are having high turnout rates in 2016 and in some states are setting records. But there are many reasons for that and not all of those reasons favor Trump, one of the nation’s foremost voter turnout experts said Wednesday.

“It is a mixed bag,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at University of Florida, who also runs the U.S. Election Project tracking turnout. “Yes, Republicans are more engaged at this point than Democrats by and large, but that is not true everywhere. And there’s no reason to suspect that level of engagement is so historic on the Republican side that it will carry through to November.”

Moreover, on the Democratic side, the picture is not as grim as Trump and some analysts are saying, especially those comparing Clinton to her race with Barack Obama in 2008, which was more competitive than the current GOP contest and lasted through June when Obama clinched the nomination.

“We’re setting this incredibly high hurdle for the Democrats and saying their turnout rates have fallen from this high hurdle, so that means their voters are disengaged. There are inklings in the data that suggest otherwise,” said McDonald. “You look at Nevada—actually more Democrats participated in the Nevada caucuses than the Republicans. And if you look last night [Tuesday], the two states that had the highest turnout rates were Vermont and Massachusetts, while many Republican states had turnout rates of 30 percent or lower. So, the Democrats are still engaging their supporters. This was also true in Minnesota, where the Democrats had almost twice the level of participation as the Republicans.”

But back to Trump’s boasts that he is creating a larger GOP. It’s true that Republicans are seeing their voter registration rolls grow instead of shrink for the first time in years at this stage in the federal election cycle, but not by much. “The Republican Party share of the voter registration in the country is up slightly, as compared to the last tally, which was November 2014,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. “It’s the first time the Republicans have gone up instead of down since 2004.”

In February 2016, there were about 30.5 million registered Republicans nationally, Ballot Access News reported. That’s compared to 30.9 million in October 2014, 31.3 million in October 2012, 30.9 million in October 2008, and 29.0 million in October 2004. In other words, in a highly contested GOP year, voter registration is up but not by that much. In contrast, this February there were 41.3 million Democrats, 27.6 million Independents, 411,000 Libertarians, 242,000 Greens, and about 2 million people in other parties.

On the turnout side of this ledger—where voters show up for caucuses and primaries—McDonald said Republicans were setting some records for these events, but he also said it was false that Trump was drawing more voters than Obama in 2008.

“One thing that he said that struck me as wrong is that he said that he was having records beyond any president or any candidate, which is false because Obama—the Democrats—had higher turnout in 2008,” he said.

McDonald emphasized that presidential primaries are not harbingers of fall landslides. Instead, they tend to be the lowest turnout events of any federal election.

“We are looking at primary elections. These are low-turnout affairs. If the base is growing, it’s not growing by a lot,” he said. “I think to a certain extent Trump is pulling people into the Republican primaries, but I wouldn’t make a huge deal out of it either, because the important thing will be whether or not this level of engagement on the Republican side carries through to the general election. And where I caution is that Trump is a polarizing figure. It could be just as well that there are people showing up to vote in Republican primaries to vote against Trump, as there are people to vote for him.”

Indeed, the Washington Post reported that many participants in Tuesday's Republican primary in Virginia were Democrats who crossed the line because they did not see a tight race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and they wanted their votes to count. McDonald said that pattern is not unprecedented because competition is the major factor driving the highest voter turnout.

“What’s driving a lot of what’s happening here on the Democratic and Republican sides is competition,” he said. “On the Democratic side, we have Sanders really withdrawing his campaign to just a few states and he’s basically just conceded the South. So it’s not surprising that Clinton is racking up huge wins in the south. Alll the pre-election polling is pointing in the direction that she is going to win and Democratic voters are disengaged. In a state like Virginia, where you have an open primary then, if you’re somebody that’s interested in the election, you’ll probably vote over on the Republican side than on the Democratic side, just because you have that opportunity to do so.”

The Republican National Committee’s rules also have helped to drive up GOP turnout, because before March 15, the top finishers in the caucuses and primaries proportionally divided the delegates. After March 15, the season enters a new winner-take-all phase.

“Even though Trump leads some of these [early] states by healthy margins, the way in which the delegate rules work is you can come in second or third place and still get delegates,” McDonald said. “So voters who want to express their choice and feel like there’s an opportunity that their vote will matter—it does still matter when you have all these multiple candidates. That’s from the voter’s perspective; there’s competition. From the campaign’s perspective, they’re going in and mobilizing their voters. They’re expending resources. They’re visiting the state. They’re running ads in the states. These are things that things that increase turnout, and again it’s disproportionate on the Republican side because of the way the competition is structured in the states at the moment.”

Finally, there is one more reason to dismiss Trump’s boast that he is creating a new and larger Republican Party.

“I don’t want to dismiss the higher turnout. It is interesting,” McDonald said. “But in a normal election, we would expect Republican turnout to be higher. Just generally, their voters are older, whiter, wealthier, better-educated—those are the folks that tend to vote at higher rates, compared to the Democratic coalition. If all things were equal, with the same number of candidates, and same resources, I would still expect in these primary elections very low turnout rates… These elections have the lowest turnout rates for federal offices. If all things were equal, just because of the type of voters, I’d expect higher turnout from Republicans.”

On the Democratic side, McDonald thought it was more useful to compare this year to 2000, not to the historic 2008 Obama-Clinton race.

“What this election is beginning to strike me on the Democratic side—it looks a lot like the 2000 election,” he said. “We have a favored insider candidate, Clinton, and back in 2000 it was Al Gore. We have an outsider candidate. This time it’s Sanders. Last time it was Bill Bradley. And in that election, on the Republican side, you had George W. Bush, but also a lot of other candidates that were viable or at least competing up through Super Tuesday and even beyond that. And in 2000, the Republican turnout was higher—even the differentials were more stark than what we are seeing in this election. And yet in November, Al Gore won the national popular vote.”

The takeaway is that Trump is a unique and serious candidate, the GOP’s likely 2016 nominee, and people should not underestimate his ability to win. But those factors should not be confused with his boasts about creating a newer and larger party, as evidenced by GOP voter turnout so far in 2016. Across the aisle, Trump’s boasts that Democratic voters are unengaged are also inaccurate and lacking in historic context, according to experts like McDonald who track these trends.    

“I think it is important that Trump is engaging those folks who don’t traditionally participate in primaries,” McDonald said. “But that doesn’t mean his presence will not energize people who are low-propensity voters on the Democratic side. The Democrats have had years of struggling to increase turnout among Hispanics and this could be that watershed election.”

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