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What do we know about 2024 primary turnout?

by | Mar 2

With the 2024 Election Season coming quick and fast, some are starting to ponder: what will be voter turnout?

The primary in 2024 offers up an interesting conundrum as we look to potential likely voter universes.

Presidential primary elections can be highly asymmetric in terms of motivating voters of different partisan affiliations to turn out and vote. In 2016, with no real contest on the Republican side, Republicans had little incentive to vote. In contrast, Democrats and progressive-leaning independent voters had a crowded primary election with a field of candidates including Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and others.

Examining turnout rates, in 2012, the last time that there was a competitive Republican race and no competitive Democratic contest, Republican turnout outpaced Democratic turnout by 8 points, and outpaced Independents by nearly 20-points.  Among new-registrants, Republicans were 14 points higher turnout than Democrats.

In 2016 and 2020, when there was less of a Republican contest, and more competitive Democratic campaigns, Democratic turnout averaged 2.5-points better than Republican turnout.

Among young people the disparity is even greater.  In 2020 and 2016 young Democrats were 16-points higher turnout than young Republicans, and in 2012 we saw the opposite, with young Republicans 3-points higher than young Democrats.

Add to this the fact that in California there are no signature-gathered ballot initiatives placed on the Primary election ballot, reducing the possibility that a charged statewide ballot measure could spike turnout.

Given this issue of asymmetric primary turnout by party, the PDI likely voter universes for 2024 will be published only after there is a better sense of the lineup for March. If, as expected, Biden runs for re-election with little or no challenge, and there is a crowded Republican field we could see a turnout that greatly favors Republicans. Turnout universes will have to reflect that.

This partisan turnout differential could also have a major impact on other contests on the ballot, from statewide contests down to local elections. In the 2022 statewide contests, without the skew caused by presidential primaries, every race ended up with a Democrat and a Republican on the ballot. There were no significant challengers on the Democratic side in any of the statewide contests — except for Insurance Commissioner — and Republicans were able to make it into all the runoffs. This should be the baseline for analysis.

However, over the last two statewide contests for US Senate, we have seen intra-party Democratic runoffs: Kamala Harris v. Loretta Sanchez in 2016 and Kevin DeLeon v. Dianne Feinstein in 2018. Maybe Senate contests are the outlier.

With Feinstein announcing she will not seek another term in the Senate, there will be an open race in 2022 with Representatives Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee already announcing their runs. If Duane “The Rock” Johnson runs as an independent, or if a significant, well-funded Republican gets on the ballot, the asymmetric turnout, with higher engagement from Republicans coming out to vote for the President, could lead to an independent or Republican being lifted to the second spot on the ballot. In fact, with a split Democratic field, we could see a non-Democrat gain the top spot. (Don’t get me started on two non-Democrats getting the top two spots – that’s not going to happen!)

For the US Senate contest, the turnout differential could determine if one of the Democrats can effectively win the race in the primary by being the only Democrat to go to November, or if they will have to win in the General in an intra-party Democratic runoff. Spending decisions, positioning on issues, and reaching out to non-Democratic voters are all strategic decisions that come into play.

And it’s not just the US Senate race that will have to make these strategic decisions. Many local elections, including most County Supervisor elections, are “decided” in the primary, with candidates getting over 50% and avoiding a runoff in November. How and in what races this will happen could be determined by turnout asymmetries caused by the Presidential contest. This may not have been a reality when many of these races were held in off-year elections, without anything else on the ballot. But now that almost all municipal elections are concurrent with the statewide/federal contests in even-numbered years, local officials and candidates need to consider this.

As the field for the Presidential election solidifies, expect to hear from us regarding the likely voter universes for 2024. Until then, we can only wait and watch.