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Democrats Fret Over Low Voter Turnout In Early Primaries


Now to a problem that has some Democrats worried - voter turnout. Compared to 2008, 2.6 million fewer Democrats voted in the first 15 primaries and caucuses. Meanwhile, Republican voters keep breaking turnout records. Now, since turnout is viewed as a signal of enthusiasm when forecasting the general election, we turn to Michael McDonald. He tracks voter turnout at his blog, electproject.org. I asked him why Republicans seem so much more excited about the election than Democrats.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: The Republican contest is very competitive. It's not just two candidates that are competing against one another, it's really at this point four candidates, and earlier it was even more. And all those candidates were out there, they were having their voter mobilization campaigns, encouraging supporters to go to the polls, advertising. The media's been following this very closely, and it matters even if you get third or even potentially fourth place in some of these states because you can still win delegates.

CORNISH: For the voter at home who says, look, I'm seeing Bernie Sanders have these huge rallies, people look excited, why isn't that translating into enthusiasm for Democrats?

MCDONALD: I think it is translating into enthusiasm for Democrats where Bernie Sanders is competitive. So where his campaign is out there and holding these rallies, we do see high turnout in those states. For example, on Super Tuesday, the highest turnout rate states that we saw in the country by far were in Vermont and Massachusetts. The other high turnout caucus was Minnesota, and actually, the Democratic turnout was higher than the Republican turnout by a substantial margin in Minnesota. The problem for his campaign is, is that he's conceded a large swath of the - particularly the South to Clinton, and when all the pre-election polls show that the election won't be close, voters don't see a reason to vote in the election because they don't think that their vote's going to matter. Sanders says that he needs high turnout to win. Certainly, he does better the higher the turnout. He needs to figure out how to compete with Clinton in places everywhere. He can't just sit back and defend some states, he's got to go on offense against her and try to expand his base.

CORNISH: So what are voters saying in the exit polls that might be a window into this gap between Democrats and Republicans?

MCDONALD: So there are two reasons why voters will turn out to vote. One reason is if the election is competitive. The other reason why voters will participate is when they see meaningful policy differences among the candidates. And so far when we look through the exit polls, Democrats are by and large satisfied with the two choices that they have. Most Democrats, about 70 percent or so, say that they would be satisfied with whichever candidate - Clinton or Sanders -if they go on to win the nomination. On the Republican side however, we're seeing that support level much lower. Passions are really inflamed on the Republican side in that the Republican voters see stark differences between the candidates.

CORNISH: People look back to 2008 and they talk about millennial-age voters, they talk about black and Latino voters and they talk about this Obama coalition that helped build this kind of record turnout. Was that a coalition that was tied to him in that candidacy? Is it transferable to the next Democratic nominee?

MCDONALD: That's a very good question, and this has always been a tough nut for the Democrats to break. And so far if we look at the exit polls, the sorts of folks who are showing up to support Sanders also look as part of that Obama coalition in that they tend to be younger, more idealistic. And there are Democrats who are fretting about the fact that if Clinton would be the nominee then would she be able to pull in these younger voters who right now are supporting Sanders? And I don't know the answer to that question. It's going to be much different once we get to the general election and so we should be cautious in projecting what's happening now in the primaries as to what's going to happen in the general election.

CORNISH: Michael McDonald is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. He blogs about voter turnout at electproject.org.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCDONALD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.