Primary Turnout Decline Continues
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 1998; Page A4
Voter participation in midterm primary elections continued its decades-long decline around the country this year, but it's impossible to predict whether the trend will also affect the November elections under the specter of presidential impeachment hearings, according to a study released this week.
The study, by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, suggests an increasingly apathetic and marginalized electorate with little taste for politics. Only about 17 percent of the voting-age population participated in this year's primaries, down 45 percent since 1966.
While voter turnout in primaries for both major political parties has dropped, the decline has been particularly pronounced among Democrats, the study said. Only 9 percent of the eligible voting-age population cast ballots in statewide Democratic primaries this year, a 52 percent drop since 1966 and a record low. The number of eligible people voting in Republican primaries dropped to about 8 percent, a 37 percent drop over the same time period.
If not for a significant increase in the number of Democrats voting in California's primary this year, Democratic turnout nationwide would have dropped below the GOP for the first time, the study said.
But that doesn't necessarily mean Democratic voters will be more likely to stay home in November. What happens over the next month in the sex-and-perjury scandal hovering over President Clinton likely will determine what happens in the general election.
"There are essentially two ways the public can respond to it," said Curtis Gans, director of the committee. Voters "can sit it out, in which case Republicans would have a substantial advantage," since their core voters would remain likely to turn out.
"The almost equal possibility is that people will be angry that the president did wrong and should be punished but that we should not be dragging it out, in which we case we could have a referendum on the impeachment process."
In the second scenario, turnout would not drop precipitously, which would favor Democrats, Gans said.
The committee examined the number of people who voted in relation to the number of people of who are of voting age, as opposed to the number of registered voters. The results include the number of people who voted in all state primaries and were compared to the totals in other midterm primary elections going back to 1962.
The committee used Clinton's Aug. 17 televised confession of his relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky as one benchmark to determine the impact the scandal could have in the November elections. The percentage of eligible voters who participated in state primaries before Aug. 17 was virtually the same as the percentage of those who participated after it.
Amid the speculation about the impact the scandal could have on the elections, both parties have peddled polls they believe are favorable to their side, and suggested their voters could be energized to vote.
For instance, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll shows that roughly equal numbers of likely voters say they will vote for Democrats and Republicans this year. But among the very most likely voters, Republicans hold a 12-point lead.
"The more likely people are to vote, the more likely they'll vote Republican," Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said.
But Olivia Morgan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Committee, argued that the 8-point margin of error for the question about the very most likely voters was too large to be reliable. She said that a backlash against scandal-obsessed Republicans would motivate voters in November.
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