Super Tuesday was defined by two names: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both galloped to huge wins in key states, padding their delegate counts, and were vaulted into clear frontrunner status for their party’s respective nomination. But those personalities subsumed what could be a more important storyline: The enthusiasm gap.
Across the board, Democrat turnout in the primaries is down while Republican turnout is at a record high. For instance, in South Carolina, just over 367,000 people showed up to vote, a 30 percent decrease from 2008, the year of the last contested primary. Republicans, on the other hand, had 738,000 voters turned out, a 20 percent increase over 2012. In Nevada, 84,000 Democrats came to the polls, a 30-point drop, while a record-breaking 75,000 Republicans turned out, a whopping 127-point increase. And in Iowa, Democrats’ turnout fell from about 240,000 to just over 171,000, a 29 percent drop, while Republicans drew 180,000 people to the caucuses, up from 121,000 in 2012.
It was a similar story on Super Tuesday. Danielle Kurtzleben reports for NPR:
If voter turnout is any indicator of enthusiasm, this year’s GOP voters are way, way more pumped than 2012 voters were. Democrats, meanwhile? Their excitement seems to have dimmed since 2008.
Last night, more than 8.5 million Republicans turned out to vote in the 11 GOP Super Tuesday states that reported results. That suggests far more enthusiasm than the last time Republicans picked a nominee. In those same 11 states in 2012, turnout totaled only around 4.7 million.
That makes this year’s turnout in those 11 states 81 percent higher than four years ago.
Contrast that with the Democrats. In the Dems’ 11 states reporting results from last night, turnout totaled only around 5.9 million — that’s around 2.6 million fewer people than came out in those states 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in the middle of what would would be a long, hard-fought race.
Democrats have desperately tried to explain away these astounding numbers. After the trend became clear following the initial primary states, Luis Miranda, the Democratic National Committee’s communication director, attempted to correlate the turnout with the size of the field.
“The 80,000 Democrats turned out to caucus across Nevada by just TWO Democrats was more than the 75,000 Republicans who were turned out by SIX Republicans,” Miranda wrote in a memo. “In New Hampshire TWO Democrats turned out 247,000 voters, while EIGHT Republicans turned out just 279,000. And in Iowa TWO Democrats turned out nearly as many caucus-goers as ELEVEN Republicans.”
The Democrat spin isn’t likely to comfort anyone after Super Tuesday, when Republicans turned out nearly 4 million more voters than Democrats, even with several candidates having dropped from the race. Indeed, the far more important variable behind that yawning turnout gap has nothing to do with the number of candidates, it has to do with how well those candidates are exciting voters.
Part of that is the enthusiasm gap. According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, 31 percent of Republican and Republican leaners are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting for president in this year’s election, while 23 percent of Democrats and Democrat leaners said the same. Another part is voters’ perception of how things are going. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 26 percent of registered voters felt as though the direction of the country is headed in the “right direction” versus 68 percent who say we’re on the “wrong track.” But break that down further and you find that 88 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents think we’re on the wrong track while only 41 percent of Democrats said the same.
That enthusiasm and anger that is driving the Republicans to the polls now is unlikely to dwindle before Election Day, a fact that has Democrats worried about their ability to compete. So while Democrats gloat about Hillary’s primary dominance and point to the fractured nature of the Republican contest, they would do well to keep in mind just how excited Republican voters are to prove them wrong. As Democratic strategist Paul Begala said, “That keeps me up at night.”