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Will High Tide Of Primary Voter Turnout Float Republicans In November?

Voters wait in line for a polling place to open at Eastlan Baptist Church last Saturday in Greenville, S.C.
Paul Sancya
Voters wait in line for a polling place to open at Eastlan Baptist Church last Saturday in Greenville, S.C.

As Donald Trump might say, Republican turnout in this year's presidential primaries so far has been yuuuuuuuge.

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada all shattered previous records. Meanwhile, Democratic turnout has dropped since 2008, when the fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton set new benchmarks.

There are some tea leaves to be read here, but I don't think there's enough information here to project into the outcome or the levels of enthusiasm in November.

Super Tuesday on March 1 could also see new turnout records set. In Tennessee, where 58 delegates are up for grabs, party officials are already touting historic early voting numbers for Republicans as evidence that it's the GOP that holds the momentum heading into November.

"Republicans have the energy, enthusiasm and ideas that are motivating a record number of Tennesseans to come out to the polls," state Republican Party Executive Director Brent Leatherwood said in a statement Wednesday.

But will that translate into an edge for the GOP in November? And is Trump, the real estate mogul who has a commanding delegate lead, responsible for that bump with unconventional candidacy?

According to Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who tracks voter turnout at his blog ElectProject.org, it's too early to tell whether Republicans will have a general election advantage just yet.

"There are some tea leaves to be read here, but I don't think there's enough information here to project into the outcome or the levels of enthusiasm in November," McDonald said.

McDonald pointed out that in 2000, Republican primary turnout was much heavier than it was for Democrats — and that election between George W. Bush and Al Gore ended up essentially deadlocked until the Supreme Court intervened.

One reason there's more perceived enthusiasm for Republicans right now is that there were simply more candidates for a long time — a field that started out with 17 has now winnowed to five. They've spent more money, commanded more media attention and had more twists and turns than the Democratic battle between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"Just from sort of a logistical standpoint, there's a greater level of competition on the GOP side, coupled with all of the resources that have been spent," McDonald said. "We should expect that Republicans would be more engaged simply for that reason."

McDonald also argues that Republicans are more engaged in the primary process by their nature — they're the ones most likely to show up in drop-off elections in midterm and off-year contests and are historically more engaged.

Some of those high turnout numbers have come from new GOP voters. According to entrance and exit polls, in Iowa 45 percent of voters were new caucusgoers. In New Hampshire, 15 percent of voters were casting ballots for the first time.

Trump has been strong across the GOP spectrum — winning evangelical voters, blue-collar workers and older Americans. But he's also a very polarizing figure, with upside down approval ratings nationally.

Ultimately, the calculation changes in a general election, where Republicans must find a way to win with a more diverse electorate.

And even as many in the GOP are beginning to accept that Trump may be on an unstoppable course to winning the nomination, that doesn't mean they aren't nervous about his ability to win over a growing Hispanic voting bloc nationally, especially given his harsh rhetoric on immigration.

In 2012, Latinos made up 10 percent of the vote, and Mitt Romney lost those voters to Obama by a stunning 44 points. Many Republicans worry that gap would grow if Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were their standard bearer.

"I can't think of a single biggest motivator for Hispanics to vote against Republicans than to have Donald Trump at the top of the ticket," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, who's unaligned in the primary. "The enthusiasm is on our side, despite shifts demographically. It goes without saying that Trump and Cruz would harm that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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