Primary Turnout And The 2014 Midterms

Turnout to date for the 2014 primaries is at record lows, but its unclear what that tells us about November.

Election 2014

As we head into another midterm election, we are once again seeing numerous polls that show public approval of Congress is at record low levels. Despite that fact, as I sit here today I will confidently predict that the vast majority of the members of the House and Senate members who run for re-election will in fact be re-elected. For the House, the re-election rate will be well north of 90% yet again. In the Senate, the number will likely be below that given the fact that there are a number of incumbents, most of them Democrats, who are vulnerable to defeat. Even in the Senate, though, the number is still likely to be fairly high, and most likely well above the low of 55% that was hit in 1980 when Republicans grabbed control of the Upper Chamber on the coattails of Ronald Reagan’s landslide win over President Carter. As Aaron Blake explains,a good deal of that is true because even though a lot of people are mad at Congress, most of them are not going to vote:

A new study shows that Americans are on-track to set a new low for turnout in a midterm election, and a record number of states could set their own new records for lowest percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots.

The study, from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, shows turnout in the 25 states that have held statewide primaries for both parties is down by nearly one-fifth from the last midterm, in 2010. While 18.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots back then, it has been just 14.8 percent so far this year. Similarly, 15 of the 25 states that have held statewide primaries so far have recorded record-low turnout.


This is all the more depressing when you realize that, less than 50 years ago, primary turnout was twice as high.

This chart shows just how badly primary turnout has dropped off:

Primary Turnout Chart

There has been a similar drop in voter turnout in General Elections in midterm election years over the same period. Voter turnout in the 1962 midterms, for example, was 47.3%. By 1974, which was the first midterm after the adoption of the 26th Amendment, turnout dropped to 38.8%, which was not dissimmilar to the turnout drop seen between the 1968 (60.8%) and 1972 (55.2%) Presidential elections. In general, though, turnout has stayed at this post-Amendment stage for the past forty years. The low point came in  1986 and 1998 when turnout hit 36.4%. More recently, we’ve actually seen a steady but small up-tick in mid-term turnout from 37.0% in 2002, to 37.1% in 2006, and 37.8% in 2010.If that trend continues, then we might see a slight uptick again this year, or otherwise we can expect it to reaming consistent with the numbers we’ve seen since 1972. The important point, though, is that turnout for the midterm General Election has been more or less stable for 40 years even as turnout for primaries has fallen precipitously.

Given this, I am not sure that you can draw any conclusions about how high turnout will be in the General Election based on the figures for primaries since there are obviously different things motivating Primary voters and General Election voters. The biggest factor, of course, is the fact that Primary Elections are held at different times of the year, often times when people are either not paying attention to politics at all or are busy with other activities. This is especially true of primaries that take place in June, July, and August when many people are on vacation. Beyond scheduling, though, I suspect that the main people that turnout in primaries is low can be traced to the fact that very few of them are actually competitive and the ones that are competitive tend to appeal mainly to people who are either party stalwarts or strongly ideological. In some sense, that what makes the recent runoff election in Mississippi so unique; because Senator Thad Cochran was able to use his ties to the states African-American community, which have always been quite good, to get people who otherwise would not vote in a Republican Primary to come out and vote for him. Ordinarily, you simply don’t see that, which is why primaries usually end up with a result where the incumbent wins easily or where someone on the ideological extreme ends up pulling off a surprise victory. Races like that are unlikely to appeal to most middle of the road voters, and they certainly aren’t going to appeal to independents.

There is one aspect in which midterm primary turnoff may be significant, and that comes when you look at how it breaks down by party, because when you do that there seems to be some bad news for Democrats

Primary Turnout Chart Two

Republican primary turnout has been relatively steady, while it has been dropping like a stone for Democrats for the past forty years. I’ll leave it to others to try to figure out why this has happened, but I suspect part of it has to do with the fact that many voters who tend to vote Democratic also tend not to vote in midterms to begin with and the fact that, at least in recent years, we haven’t seen the kind of high-profile primary battles in Democratic races that have become common in the GOP lately. Those are the kind of races that draw people out to vote in primaries, and they’re also the kind of people more likely to come out and vote in General Elections. Additionally, being able to identify who came out to vote in a primary is an important tool that “get out the vote” operations use in determining which voters to target with advertising and telephone calls leading up to the General Election. As Blake notes, that discrepancy in primary turnout is one reason why Democrats should be worried this year.

1 Source for turnout figures can be found here.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    The Hobby Lobby and Halbig decisions may drive Democratic voters to the polls this time though. Losing your health insurance is a big motivator to vote out the bastards who want to take away your heath care.
    Here is one Democrat’s attempt to take advantage of Halbig decision:

    Now, let’s take a look at this morning’s press release by Mark Totten, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Michigan Attorney General, running against incumbent Republican Bill Schutte:

    “Schuette Forces Massive Tax Hike On Working Michigan Families”
    “Federal court backs Schuette’s crusade to raise taxes by nearly $5,000 on a half-million Michigan families, while shipping Michigan tax dollars to California and New York”

    Well, now. That’s a different take indeed. And the beauty of it is that this is exactly what the end result of the ruling would be: Around 272,000 Michiganders had actually enrolled via the exchange as of 4/19, or probably around 300,000 by now. Assuming around 85% of those received subsidies, that’s around 255K. However, as Totten’s press release notes, there’s over 500,000 Michigan residents eligible for those subsidies.

    As for the “shipping Michigan tax dollars to CA and NY”, this is, again, 100% true: Some portion of the taxes paid for by Michigan residents to fund the ACA will now go exclusively to enrollees in the 15 or so states which are running their own exchanges, such as California and New York, which are the biggest exchanges outside of the federal one, of course.

    Will attacks like this work? Only time will tell. But there are 4.7M voters in red states who are very incentivized to turn out in November to vote to keep their health insurance.

  2. edmondo says:

    A new study shows that Americans are on-track to set a new low for turnout in a midterm election, and a record number of states could set their own new records for lowest percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots.

    Is this really so hard to fathom? You can’t vote for the Democrats because they lie about what they’ll do once elected and you can’t vote for the Republicans because they tell the truth about what they’ll do.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Here on the left coast where we have vote by mail voter participation is actually up. Oregon and Washington are 100% vote by mail and California makes it an easy option.

  4. MR X says:

    Polls dont mean anything until after Labor Day when the Big Money starts pouring in and attack ads rule. Super Pacs will run non stop attacks trying to boost turnout on both sides.

  5. I’d like to see the results adjusted to reflect the growing number political independents. How much of the reduction in primary election participation is due to the fact that a growing portion of the electorate isn’t allowed to vote in primaries?

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Good point! I’m a registered independent but I did vote in the May primary because there were some local issues I wanted to vote on. Plus here in Oregon most of the local offices are non-partisan so I can vote on them.

  7. C. Clavin says:


    You can’t vote for the Democrats because they lie about what they’ll do once elected and you can’t vote for the Republicans because they tell the truth about what they’ll do.

    Yet the evidence at hand says the exact opposite. If actions speak louder than words…the word of a Republican is very very very very quiet.
    Bush…the compasionate conservative that was neither compasionate nor conservative…who spoke of a humble foreign policy and against nation-building…then embarked on an arrogant imperialistic foreign policy centered on nation-building.
    Obama? Politifact has his campaign promises kept or compromised on or still in the works at 76%.
    I’m sure now that you have reviewed actual evidence you will modify your position.
    Bwah-hahahahahahahha…….I crack myself up.

  8. Matt Bernius says:


    Is this really so hard to fathom? You can’t vote for the Democrats because they lie about what they’ll do once elected and you can’t vote for the Republicans because they tell the truth about what they’ll do.

    Congratulations — you’ve reached “Florack-ville”, population: 2.

    You’ll be happy to discover you’re in the company of a person who also believes that all parties are corrupt and that you should only vote for the magical-perfect-candidates who — if they only ran* — would immediately capture 110% of the real American vote!

    Like the other resident of “Florack-ville”, you continue to believe that, like the vast majority of real Americans, you are doing your patriotic duty by not voting for anybody and, instead, investing your time in comments to online blogs that (a) complain about said crooks and (b) proclaim how much smarter you are than the rest of us “sheeple.”

    * – Of course its also worth noting that you simultaneously believe that even if they ran, the party big wigs would never actually let the win. So why bother running in the first place?

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @edmondo: @C. Clavin: The party of ‘Saddam has WMDs’ does not get to complain about others lying. Ever.

    Mitt Romney lied like a rug.

    I still have the same insurance and the doctor I like. As do almost all of us.

  10. MR X says:


    “Mitt Romney lied like a rug”

    You mean about Russia?

  11. superdestroyer says:

    For those who want to speculate about the downturn in the blue line in the graph on partisan voter turnout, just try to find an election where two Democrats were running against each other in a primary and the result was a 52-48% or smaller gap. What is amazing about the Democratic primaries is how few competitive elections there are these days. It looks like the OWS types do not really care about trying to change the government at the ballot box.

  12. Joe says:

    Don’t complain if you don’t vote. PERIOD.