Voter turnout in primaries thus far running a record low

April 14, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Voter participation is running at a record low rate in this year's presidential primaries, with four out of five of those eligible to vote staying home, according to a new study.

A total of 18.9 percent of voting-age Americans have taken part ** in primaries so far, the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reported yesterday. The previous record low for a primary season was 20.6 percent in 1984.

Compared with 1988, turnout this year is off nearly 12 percent, the report said. Most of the decline is on the Democratic side, down 18.4 percent; Republican turnout has decreased 4.1 percent.

"We have a very unhappy electorate," said Curtis B. Gans, director of the research organization. "But we have very different dramas being played out in the different parties."

On the Republican side, a larger drop-off might have been expected because President Bush was considered likely to be renominated with little difficulty. But Mr. Gans suggested that Patrick J. Buchanan's surprising challenge, especially in early primaries, encouraged angry GOP voters to go to the polls.

On the other hand, Democratic voters seem discouraged by their choice of candidates, the committee concluded, citing the absence of more well-known Democrats and "mobilizing figures," such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Mr. Gans said Democratic voters are largely turned off by a choice between Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, about whom many people have doubts, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, "whose remedies appear too simplistic and whose persona is distinctly unpresidential."

Mr. Gans also cited the negative aspects of the Democratic candidates' campaigns and the decision to lump together many of the Southern primaries, which required candidates to rely on TV advertisements rather than personal campaigning, resulting in diminished "citizen involvement."

Combining both parties' figures, overall primary turnout fell in 10 states and it increased in six, including Maryland. Turnout in Maryland's March 3 primaries was up 3.5 percent on the Democratic side and 15.5 percent on the Republican side, with an overall increase of nearly 7 percent compared with 1988.

The committee's report includes results through the most recent primaries. The last primaries are in June.

Mr. Gans cautioned against drawing conclusions about the fall campaign. Historically, low primary turnouts don't necessarily presage low turnouts in the general election. In 1984, primary turnout declined while participation in the general election increased.

But if the campaign is very negative, "turnout could fall below 50 percent for the first time since the 1920s," Mr. Gans said.

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