Amid a Pandemic and Social Unrest, Turnout Holds Its Own in the Primaries.

What this Means for November

Charles Stewart
Jun 15, 2020 · 3 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the 2020 presidential primary season far down the nation’s political agenda. Without large public gatherings to focus the public attention’s on the messages of the main candidates, and with the Democratic presidential nomination coming to a surprisingly swift conclusion, the primary season has quite literally gone underground, to Joe Biden’s basement and Donald Trump’s bunker.

Because Americans’ minds have been on other things — COVID-19 and racial injustice — it would be unsurprising if voters stayed away from the polls during the primaries. And yet, just the opposite has occurred. With a notable dip in Ohio’s primary late April, turnout in Democratic primaries have been at about the same level as 2016. Republican primary turnout has been about half of what it was four years ago, but this is understandable, given the lack of a serious challenge to President Trump’s renomination.

At the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, we have been studying turnout and how voters cast their ballots, with an eye toward understanding how they are adapting to these challenging times. We have been following turnout levels in the primaries, comparing them to 2016, to see whether the pandemic has dampened voter interest. This comparison makes perfect sense for the Democratic primary, since 2016 was fiercely contested, as was 2020 — at least until Super Tuesday. It’s a little less informative on the Republican side, since 2016 also saw intense Republican competition, and thus competition-driven turnout, unlike this year.

As the accompanying figure shows, turnout in the Democratic primaries mostly exceeded the figures seen in 2016 during the months of February and March, in some cases, dramatically so. (Turnout in Virginia and Washington were over 50% greater in 2020 than in 2016, for instance.)

Republican turnout was about half what it was in 2016, with a few notable exceptions. Two of those exceptions — Alabama and California — were states that yoked the presidential primary with the state primary that chose nominees for state and local races to face off in the fall. The third, Washington, mails ballots to all registered voters, which could make it subject of another post in the future.

March 17 marked a break in the primary calendar, as all but one state that had originally scheduled primaries in late March and early April postponed them to later dates. Wisconsin (in)famously failed to postpone its primary, which resulted in ballots being cast on April 7. As I wrote at the time, despite the swirl of court cases that cast doubt over whether the Wisconsin primary would be postponed, the rapidly accelerating health crisis in the Badger State, and difficulty keeping in-person polling places open in the cities, turnout in the primary was almost exactly what we would expect, in statistical terms. (The statistical model took into effect how competitive the presidential primary and supreme court election were.)

As primaries have come back into view in May and June, turnout has returned to what we were seeing in March — Democratic turnout has generally exceeded 2016 levels, whereas Republican turnout has been about half of what we saw four years ago.

The presidential primaries will continue into early July, but increasingly they will give way to state and local primaries that will determine general election match-ups in the fall. These primaries will not only help us gauge overall interest in electoral politics, but help us to see interest in moving away from Election Day to early in-person voting and mail balloting. The Election Lab will be releasing a series of reports in the coming weeks that drill down into the details of voting during the primaries, with an eye to what they can tell us about what to expect in November.

Until then, it is clear that Americans continue to be engaged in the 2020 election, and that we should continue to see robust turnout in the upcoming primaries, as well as solid — and maybe even record-breaking — turnout in November.

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