Turnout not all about numbers

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

WASHINGTON From Iowa on the first night of the campaign season to Utah on the latest, robust turnouts are the rule rather than the exception in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But like everything else this year, Republicans and Democrats dispute the impact of long lines at polling places and crowded caucus rooms on the fall campaign for the White House.

The numbers are straightforward. It's the interpretation that gets complicated

Participation in the kickoff Iowa caucuses was near or at record levels, 124,311 activists drawn by a heated, multi-candidate race. The 219,000 ballots cast eight days later in New Hampshire far outstripped previous totals for a Democratic primary in that state.

Arizona's Democratic primary drew more than 225,000 voters to the polls, well over double the number in 2000. And nearly 300,000 votes were cast in the South Carolina primary, easily surpassing the record set in 1992.

''Democrats set records in Iowa and New Hampshire and the trend is continuing,'' said party chair Terence McAuliffe. ''George W. Bush will have a record amount of money, but his money will lose every time to a record number of Americans who desperately want to turn this country around.''

But Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's re-election campaign, countered, ''They're not having record turnouts overall.'' He said 2.5 million ballots have been cast in primaries and caucuses to date, well under 2.8 million that represent the combined records.

Also, he noted, Democrats had high turnouts in 1988, but lost the White House that fall when Michael Dukakis fell to George H. Bush.

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the truth is more complicated than either side wants to concede.

''The Republicans are playing games with figures, and the Democrats are playing games with figures,'' said Gans, who has spent decades studying voter turnout.

New Hampshire aside, he said turnout ''is not at all a record.'' On numbers alone, for example, Iowa may match the 1988 total, but when population growth is accounted for, the turnout rate is lower than 16 years ago.

On the other hand, he said, ''You generally do not have a big turnout in these primaries, but I think we'll have a big turnout in the fall.''

Some states where Democrats boast about turnout Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, for example figure to be battlegrounds in the fall, and a motivated Democratic voter base should help the party's candidate.

But no state is likely to be less competitive than Utah, where last Tuesday's turnout of 35,191 voters was double the total of four years ago. Bush won the state with 67 percent of the vote in 2000 and isn't likely to be challenged there this fall, either.

Nor does North Dakota figure to rank high on the list of Democratic targets, even though this year's 10,508 caucus-goers almost quintupled the turnout for 2000.

Exit polls in several states indicate that emotion is one factor in raising voter turnout. In all, 51 percent of Democrats surveyed in Delaware as they left their polling places said they were angry at the president. The total was 46 percent in Arizona and New Hampshire, 44 percent in Virginia and Wisconsin.

Placement on the campaign calendar contributes, too.

The earlier a primary or caucus occurs the more candidates are likely to be in the race, and the more voters feel they can influence the party's choice of a nominee.

''In New Hampshire you had a long retail campaign among Democrats who eventually came to the polls in very large numbers because they were in the process of sorting out who could best beat George Bush,'' Gans said. Turnout, more than 23 percent of the voting age population, was the biggest since at least 1960.

South Carolina's Democratic election recorded turnout of nearly 9.5 percent of the eligible voting age population, more than double the rate of 1992, when the state held its only other primary.

A dozen years ago, Bill Clinton's nomination was not in doubt when the primary rolled around. This time, the competition was intense, with John Edwards, Wesley Clark, John Kerry and other contenders all purchasing television advertising and campaigning personally in the first-in-the-South primary.

Regional concerns matter.

The turnout in Tennessee this year was 8.2 percent of the eligible voting age population. That was higher than either of the last two election years, but it was far behind the 1988 turnout of 16 percent, when then-Sen. Al Gore was running for the White House.

Purely local factors can also intrude.

Wisconsin's Democratic primary turnout was swelled by an estimated 80,000 Republicans, according to exit polls, many of them likely drawn to vote by a mayoral election in Milwaukee and a controversial ballot issue in Dane County, which includes the state capital.

David Espo has covered presidential politics for The Associated Press since 1980.

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