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Primary Polling Primer II: More on Turnout

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

Continuing with my Presidential Primary Polling Primer, I know I promised in the first installment to talk next about issues of timing, but before moving on, a few more points about national primary turnout are in order. I want to consider below both total turnout and the somewhat unique approach of the CBS/New York Times surveys.

My 2004 turnout summary was based on participation in the Democratic primaries only because George W. Bush was essentially unopposed that year. According to data collected by Rhodes Cook (shared via email), Bush had the primary ballot to himself in eleven states and faced token opposition in sixteen more. Because there was no contest, the number of states holding Republican presidential primaries fell from 43 to 27.

So a better way to consider the turnout picture is too take the longer view. Cook's text, The Presidential Nominating Process, includes a table (p. 49) that provides total national turnout in primary elections going back to 1912. The table below shows turnout in the "primary era" (since 1972), and includes numbers for 2004 that he kindly provided via email.**

03-14%20primary%20turnout.png

The total Turnout in 2004 as a percentage of the general election vote for president declined from 29.6% to 19.7% for two reasons. First, again, Republicans lacked a contest (note the similar pattern in 1984). Second, the general election turnout increased. According to Michael McDonald's data archive, presidential turnout as a percentage of eligible voters increased from 54.2% in 2000 to 60.3% in 2004.

But taking the longer view, it is clear that the total primary state turnout is likely to be, at best, 35% to 40% of those who will ultimately cast ballots in the November 2008, or at best, roughly 20% to 25% of those who will be eligible to vote in 2008.

Now consider again the way national media pollsters typically report presidential primary vote preference. Many are simply ask the primary vote questions of those who identify with or lean to the Democratic or Republican parties, a "screen" that captures roughly 90% of all adults. Some also screen out the roughly 20% who will tell pollsters they are not registered to vote. So the results for Democratic and Republican primary preference are typically based on roughly 70% to 90% of all adults, when only about 20% to 25% of adults are likely to participate in presidential primaries or caucuses.***

The CBS/New York Times poll does it a bit differently, and their approach is worth focusing on. Unlike the other national media pollsters, they first ask a question about past primary voting:

Next year, are you more likely to vote in a Democratic presidential primary or caucus, or a Republican primary or caucus or aren't you likely to vote in a primary or caucus at all?

They then ask the primary vote preference questions among registered voters who say they are likely to vote in the appropriate party primary or caucus. The weighted interview counts provided in the latest CBS release indicate that 63% of their adult sample qualified as registered voters likely to participate in either the Democratic (38%) or Republican (26%) primaries. That still amounts a significant over-reporting of likely turnout (a common challenge that pollsters face), but it gets us a lot closer to the population of interest: the voters who will actually chose the delegates that select each party's nominees. The tabulation of the voting question by party in the most recent survey (see q46, p. 20) shows that it excludes roughly half of independents and 20% to 25% of partisans. That's a start, at least.

So one bit of intrigue for poll consumers will be to watch whether the CBS/NYT results start to diverge from other national polls. If so, I will put more faith in the CBS/NYT results than those who simply report on the 90% of adults who lean to one party or another.

Ok, so next, on to primary timing and how that effects the polling puzzle...

**The primary vote totals do not include caucus state participation nor the votes cast in two party-run primaries in Michigan and New Mexico.

***For the Democrats, the total participation in the 14 caucus states in 2004 amounted to just 4% of the total primary and caucus turnout. Including the caucus participants would boost turnout as a percentage point of the general election vote by less than a single percentage point.

Series continues here

 

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