The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats, beware. The primaries foretell a spike in GOP turnout.

A woman walks into a polling place in Cary, N.C., to cast her ballot in the state's primary elections on May 17. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)
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Most of the discussion so far about Tuesday’s primary elections has focused on the ongoing battles between factions within the two parties. But there’s a bigger story that pundits are missing: Strong turnout in Republican primaries portends an excellent year for the GOP.

The pro-GOP pattern is unmistakable. Turnout among Republicans in the 10 states that have held primaries so far is up substantially from the last comparable election year (either 2018 or earlier depending on the state). Meanwhile, turnout in Democratic contests is down in five of those states and up only marginally in most of the others. In total, according to data compiled by political consultant John Couvillon, GOP turnout is up 32 percent so far while Democratic turnout is down 3 percent.

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Some might argue this simply reflects that the Republican side has more interesting primaries, but that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. In Texas, for example, the Republican contest for governor wasn’t any more gripping than the Democratic primary, and both parties had hot congressional primaries. Yet Democratic turnout was up by only 33,000 from 2018 while Republican turnout soared by 404,000. Neither party had a contested statewide primary in Indiana, yet Democratic turnout was down while GOP turnout was up by about 15 percent.

Partisan registration statistics in these states have also been moving in the Republican direction. Registered North Carolina Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 570,000 on the eve of the 2018 primaries. Today, they lead by less than 300,000. Kentucky Democrats had a 10 percent lead in registered voters when Donald Trump took office; today their lead is down to under one point. Republicans have added nearly 450,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania since 2014; Democrats have lost nearly 90,000. The primary turnout numbers merely confirm what data have been foreshadowing for years.

Data on partisan identification from many polls also show a trend favoring the GOP. Gallup’s end-of-year poll made headlines when it found a big shift toward Republicans during 2021. Other polls have shown a significant, if less pronounced, shift in partisan voter identification since President Biden took office. The weekly Politico-Morning Consult poll, for example, had a 43-30 Democrat-Republican split in late January 2021. The most recent poll had only a 37-35 Democratic advantage. The Monmouth University poll has moved from a nine-point Democratic advantage right after Biden’s inauguration to a three-point Republican lead in its most recent survey. One can quibble with the precise magnitude of the change, but the direction is clearly toward the GOP.

It shouldn’t be surprising that more people vote in Republican primaries when an increasing number of people identify and register as Republicans. The primary turnout data are lagging indicators of what is plainly in front of our noses: Despite what many talking heads want to believe, the average voter right now sees the GOP as a legitimate expression of their ideals.

Republicans shouldn’t get cocky. Many of the people who are turning to them now were happy to back Democrats a short time ago. Biden intends to make the GOP the focus of this year’s campaign cycle to win back these wavering voters. This type of effort often falls short in midterms, as voters want to register their views on the person in the White House. But President Ronald Reagan’s success in holding GOP congressional losses down when his job approval ratings were near their nadir in November 1982 shows such an approach can have an impact.

Time can only tell what will happen. In the meantime, the sharp hike in Republican primary turnout reinforces other data showing the party is on the rise. If this trend continues as the rest of the country votes in primaries, expect a banner year for the GOP.