Turnout in this year’s presidential and Senate primaries was the lowest on record, at 15.9 percent of eligible citizens, a new report found.
“Turnout reached record lows for presidential election years in 15 of 41 states which held statewide primaries in both parties. Democratic turnout dropped to record lows in 26 of 41 primaries. In the 46 states where Republican primaries were held, there were eight record lows and three record highs,” according to the report by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
The findings run counter to the common-sense notion that a close election means high turnout.
Curtis Gans, the center’s director, said the November election has the potential to be akin to the 1948 race, a very close race in which Harry Truman “slipped back into office in the second lowest turnout contest since women were given the vote in 1920.”
“That was a very close election and very low turnout, so the issue of turnout was who turns out, not how many,” he said.
Overall turnout was higher than in 2008 only in North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. Republican turnout was higher in 16 states, but lower in 26.
Democratic turnout was at record lows in Alabama, at 5.3 percent of eligible voters, and 25 other states, including Maryland, at 8 percent. Presidential primaries in most states have been in place since 1972, so the national Democratic turnout was lower than in all recent cycles in which Democrats did not have a contested presidential primary.
The data is notable because conventional wisdom is that this election would be decided based significantly on which party can motivate the most of its voters to go to the polls.
Elections in previous years of economic turmoil, such as 1982 and 1992, saw exceptionally high turnout.
But both parties have undergone changes in the last four years that the report says have distanced some party loyalists.
“Many Tea Party oriented Republicans do not trust Mitt Romney’s commitment to their values. Many centrist Republicans are appalled at what their party has become.” And young people no longer are enamored by President Obama as a fresh agent of change, as they were in 2008, the report says.
Extrapolating to the general election, and based on polls showing low likability of the candidates, the report estimates that 100 million Americans could stay on the sidelines in November.