Trump’s wishful thinking on new primary voters

Published 12:06 am Monday, June 6, 2016

By Michael Bitzer

With Republican voters solidified behind their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump has turned his focus to the general election.

In many statements, Trump has indicated he has brought “new voters” to the GOP primary contests, with the assertion that these new voters will follow him into the general election. Using this logic, Trump has laid claims to flipping traditionally blue states, like New York and California, to red this coming fall.

In North Carolina, turnout in the Republican primary election did increase from 2012’s primary election, from 973,000 four years ago to 1.1 million this year. Of course, part of the explanation could be that the increased attention due to the primary being two months earlier, coupled with a highly competitive GOP contest, brought more voters to the polls for the primary.

But both parties saw increased numbers, according to data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

In looking at the voters who cast ballots in this year’s Republican primary, one can match up those voters with records from the May 2012 presidential primary, discounting those in the 2016 election who were under the age of 22 (being 18 or younger in 2012) or who didn’t register before 2012. More than one-third of the Republican electorate didn’t participate four years ago, with a greater percentage of unaffiliated voters (37 percent) who didn’t cast ballots in 2012 but did in 2016, compared to 28 percent of registered Republicans.

On the Democratic side, a similar pattern emerges, due to a more competitive contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders than four years ago when Barak Obama went unchallenged for the nomination. This year, 35 percent of the Democratic ballots came from voters who didn’t vote in 2012, with 41 percent of registered unaffiliated voters and 34 percent of registered Democrats voting this year but staying home four years ago.

So both parties brought forward “new primary voters” to the ballot box. Trump contends many of the new voters in Republican primaries would have otherwise been non-voters in the general election. But Trump’s claim may be more fiction that fact.

Among 2016’s GOP primary voting electorate who were eligible to vote in 2012, 97 percent of them cast ballots in 2012’s general election. The difference between registered Republican voters and registered unaffiliated voters, who cast ballots in both the 2016 primary and the 2012 general election, is minuscule: Of those who cast ballots in this March’s primary, 97 percent of registered Republicans and 96 percent of registered unaffiliated voters voted in the 2012 general election.

While 97 percent of registered Democrats voted in both 2012 and 2016’s primary election, 94 percent of registered unaffiliated voters in 2016’s Democratic primary election had cast ballots in 2012 as well.

Meaning, a slightly higher percentage of voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 general election, but who did cast ballots in the 2016 primary election, did so on the Democratic side of the ballot. The other key point to take away is that even though the primary electorates in North Carolina grew in size, they grew from voters who typically vote in the fall general election.

Other studies, especially in key presidential battleground states like Virginia and Ohio, also confirm that Trump’s claim is more myth than reality: One GOP-leaning organization concluded that “there is not a large swath of new voters who flooded the elections in the primaries that are going to flood the polls in the general election: they already show up to general elections.”

With the summer months heralding the party conventions and the official nomination of both Trump and the soon-to-be presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the increased turnout that North Carolina and other states will see going from the spring primary to the fall general election will be significant: the combined primary electorates of 2.3 million from March will likely double to 4.5 million in November, if the past two presidential electorates are any indication.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is provost and professor of politics at Catawba College. This column is from the blog he writes for WFAE radio, The Party Line.