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October 29, 2014

This is a guest post from Robert G. Boatright, Associate Professor of Political Science at Clark University and member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Massachusetts Democrats spent much of September and early October fretting about the results of the September gubernatorial primary.  While some analysts focused on Martha Coakley’s less-than-convincing victory in the primary, others lamented the lack of excitement generated by the primary.  For evidence of this, one can point to the historically low turnout; only 16.8 percent of both parties’ eligible voters turned out.  This is up from 2010 (when there was less competition at the statewide level) but lower than the 21.5 percent turnout in 2006.  What does this say about Massachusetts politics?

There are two easy ways to answer this question.  One way to approach the issue would be to note that primary turnout has been steadily declining for decades now.  Back in the 1960s, primary turnouts of over thirty percent were common.  Declining turnout can easily be connected to declining civic engagement in politics and declining public trust in politicians.

Another easy response would be to make claims about the lackluster campaign itself.  Perhaps a more exciting primary would have generated higher turnout.  Such commentary brings back, for Democrats, memories of Coakley’s 2010 loss to Scott Brown.

 Neither approach is really fair – to the state or to Coakley.  It’s best to start by comparing Massachusetts to the rest of the country.  The Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) recently released a study of primary turnout through September 1 of this year.  Nationwide, primary turnout was 14.8 percent, so Massachusetts ran slightly ahead of the national average.  Massachusetts always has higher turnout than the rest of the country, however, so this doesn’t necessarily say anything about this election.  We lagged far behind several states that aren’t known for being high-turnout states.  Montana, for instance, had voter turnout of 26.3 percent, despite not having particularly competitive Senate or Gubernatorial primaries on either side.  According to the CSAE statistics, turnout was down from 2010 in every state that held comparable elections at the time but North Carolina, West Virginia, and Nebraska.

There is a debate of long standing about what drives primary election turnout.  Many states have tinkered with their rules in efforts aimed (in part) at boosting turnout.  California’s recent adoption of a nonpartisan “top two” primary is one such example.  There is no evidence, however, that changing restrictions on voter eligibility or registration makes a difference in primary turnout.  There is not even any solid evidence to support the common claim that low primary turnout benefits ideologically extreme candidates.  There is a great deal of evidence, however, that the competitiveness of the primary makes a difference.  One of the highest turnout races in 2014, for instance, was the runoff election in Mississippi between incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and his opponent Chris McDaniel.  While runoffs almost always feature lower turnout than primaries, in this case vigorous campaigning by both candidates and by surrogate Super PACs actually drove up turnout compared to the primary that preceded it.

There is not, however, a convenient way to quantify competitiveness.  For instance, the Massachusetts governor’s race was clearly competitive if one simply looks at the winner’s margin of victory.  There’s no easy way to quantify any alleged lack of excitement – or at least not one that uses lack of excitement to explain primary turnout.  There is also, I should note, no research that draws a connection between primary turnout and general election results.  That is, a lackluster primary or an uncompetitive primary does not predict anything about who will win the general election.

One way to frame this year’s primary, however, is to note that the dropoff in voting was steeper outside of Boston.  In my home city of Worcester, for instance, turnout fell from 17.5 percent in 2010 (as compared to 12.4 percent statewide) and 26.6 percent in 2006 (as compared to 21.5 percent statewide) to just 14.4 percent.  Some of this decline may be attributable to the presence of local favorite son Tim Murray’s presence on the ballot in both years, but it’s also the case that the Deval Patrick campaign was more visible here in both years than were any of this year’s Democratic gubernatorial campaigns.  So it’s not the turnout that matters, it’s the uneven decline in turnout.  The steep dropoff from 2010 is also noteworthy because the only contested Democratic primary races that year were for auditor and treasurer. 

 Why does low turnout in this year’s primary matter?  I would suggest three reasons, two of which have to do with the fortunes of the candidates, and one of which has to do with the wisdom of holding primaries in the first place. 

As to candidates’ fortunes, primary turnout is often presented as a barometer of public sentiment, as a measurement of what is in store for the general election.  The higher-than-average Republican turnout around the country in the 2010 primaries, for instance, was said by many to presage the Republican landslide that was to come.  There is again no evidence that there is a clear connection, or that high primary turnout determined general election results (as opposed to having expectations about the election drive greater primary competition).  But if the media narrative incorporates primary turnout into its story, this becomes something candidates must discuss.  In other words, perception can become reality.

Second, primaries provide an opportunity for candidates to make connections with voters.  If people are contacted by a campaign in the primary, they tend to remember this in the general election.  Primaries represent a chance to recruit volunteers and to test campaign messages.  Campaigns can use primaries to gather information about voters which can be used in the general election.  Even if a candidate expects a primary to be uncompetitive, there are important reasons to use the primary to one’s advantage.  As the Worcester example here shows, dropoff was steeper in some places than others, perhaps indicating that this year’s race is particularly Boston-centric.  This is a perception that all of the state’s candidates should seek to combat.

Third, it must be remembered that many the costs of election administration tend to fall on the state’s municipal governments, many of which have been forced to cut back on a variety of services over the past decade.  Here in Worcester, it is easy to draw a connection between the cost of administering an election where no one votes and the loss of a teaching position in the public schools.  This may be an unfair linkage – after all, cities have many responsibilities that they must juggle – but citizens do make these connections, and this translates into resentment of the primary process in general.

It could be that none of this will matter next week; again, there’s little research connecting primary and general election voting patterns.  Declining voter turnout is a phenomenon everywhere in the country, and there is little solid research about fixes.  Given that Martha Coakley’s every step this year seems to be compared to what she did (or didn’t do) in 2010, however, we can be certain that should she come up short on November 4th this year’s primary will be remembered as a lost opportunity for her campaign to stoke voter excitement.

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