Democratic primary turnout weak

Md.'s was lowest in state in 40 years

Study puts part of blame on bunching of elections into early 6-week period

Election 2004

March 10, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - This year's presidential nomination race might have captivated party activists, but a new study finds that overall turnout in the Democratic primaries has been low by historical standards.

The study, based on election returns through March 2, showed that only about 11.4 percent of eligible voters took part in the Democratic primaries. Maryland's turnout was the lowest of any contested Democratic presidential primary in the state in 40 years.

Curtis Gans, a turnout specialist who compiled the figures, blamed, in part, the Democratic Party's decision to compress most primaries into an early six-week period and then to group them on multistate primary days such as Super Tuesday.

Grouping primaries dampened turnout, he concluded, by restricting the amount of time and money the candidates could spend in a single state.

"Contrary to some published reports and with the singular exception of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which set a new record high, Democratic turnout ... was generally low, in the aggregate, the third-lowest," wrote Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan group in Washington.

He made state-by-state comparisons dating to 1964.

With President Bush unopposed for renomination, GOP primary turnout was the lowest in the past 40 years, the report found.

At the same time, Gans forecast relatively high turnout for this fall's expected showdown between Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. He expects it to match or exceed turnout in the 1992 election and to outpace either the 1996 or 2000 presidential election turnout. There is no correlation between primary and general election turnout, he noted.

New Hampshire and Wisconsin, which had the second-highest turnout, were the only states that held early primaries on days when they faced no competition from elections in other states. Both also allowed independent voters to take part in the Democratic primary.

New Hampshire's turnout was 23.5 percent, and Wisconsin's was 20.5 percent, according to the report, which calculated turnout as a proportion of the number of people, 18 or over, who are eligible to vote.

In Maryland, turnout in the Democratic primary was 12.4 percent, down from 13.7 percent in 2000 and 16.2 percent in 1992. That made 2004 the lowest turnout year on record in the modern era in Maryland, with the exception of 1996, when President Bill Clinton ran unopposed for nomination and only 8 percent of eligible voters turned out.

Besides Maryland, four other states with early primaries - California, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island - recorded drops in voter turnout. All held their elections on Super Tuesday, the most crowded primary day of the year.

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst who publishes a campaign newsletter, said the turnout numbers "show how hard it is to get people interested in politics."

The fact that relatively few Democrats participated in the primaries "doesn't mean that Kerry is a weak candidate. But it does, however, limit some of the Democrats' euphoria. When only one side is talking, it looks as if a tsunami is being created."

Recent national polls show Bush's job approval ratings at the lowest levels of his presidency and give Kerry a small, early advantage over the president among likely voters. Weeks of intense news coverage of the Democratic contest, and of the anti-Bush rhetoric of the Democratic contenders, have been noted as factors behind Bush's popularity slump.

Democratic officials have said that, if anything, the primary season has exceeded their expectations. With Kerry effectively locking up the nomination in early March, the party has begun pulling together for the fall election and the longest general election campaign ever.

Gans said Democrats "got lucky" that their "truncated process" united the party and produced, in Kerry, a likely nominee who could be seen by voters as a "plausible potential president." But, he warned, the Democrats have "propelled themselves into a four-month dead period before the national conventions in which citizen interest will decline, the opposition will have the opportunity to define the nature of the race, and the party will have to remobilize its supporters."

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