I admit that I don't know everything about voter turnout. Why can't a certain New York Times writer?
This originally appeared at Jonathan Bernstein’s blog
Matt Bai’s bizarre, ahistorical “analysis” of the Alaska Senate contest:
Something like 230,000 Alaskans appear to have cast ballots in this month’s midterm election, compared with fewer than 146,000 who voted in the Republican and Democratic primaries combined…
You have to wonder, given this trend, whether the primary process as we’ve known it can remain tenable. With each passing year, it seems, an ever smaller group of voters in either party — rallying, in a year like this one, around ever more extreme points of view — get to effectively determine the options for the rest of the electorate.
“An even smaller group.” Sure, Matt Bai.
He’s making stuff up.
Let’s see… he reports 146K in the primaries, compared with 230K in the general election. So primary turnout was 63% of general election turnout. How does that stack up historically? Is it an “even smaller group?” I don’t think so. How about some numbers:
Lisa Murkowski, as political junkies know, was appointed by her father, the previous Senator and then governor. Frank Murkowski was first elected in 1980, another goofy election in which the incumbent Democrat, Mike Gravel, was defeated in his primary by Clark Gruening. So, just like 2010, there was a contested incumbent primary on one side, and an open primary on the other. Turnout?
In 1980, 100K* votes were cast in Alaska’s primaries, compared with 157K in the general. Primary turnout was… 64% of general election turnout.
Gruening, you say? Clark Gruening’s grandfather was Ernest Gruening, who Gravel had defeated in a 1968 primary (Gruening, by the way, ran as a write-in in the general, although he finished third). Oh, those wacky Alaskans! So 1968 is our next comparison point, with once against a hotly contested challenge to an incumbent in one primary, while the other primary was open. Again, turnout?
In 1968, 53K votes were cast in Alaska’s primary, which was apparently an open, blanket primary at that point. 81K votes were cast in the general election. So that makes primary turnout… 65% of general election turnout.
OK, technically, I suppose 63% is smaller than 64% which is smaller than 65%, but really, we’re talking about the same ratio. No change. None. Nada. Zip. Not “an even smaller group.” The same size group.
I’m picking on this one “fact” because it points to something that’s important to remember about Matt Bai, who writes for The New York Times — paper of record, all that.
Matt Bai either makes stuff up, or hears things from others that are made up, and he doesn’t bother to check whether it’s true before he puts it in The Times.
Look, I have no idea whether primary turnout compared to general election turnout is up or down since the 1950s (his comparison point). What I do know is that the ratio Matt Bai reported in The New York Times for the 2010 Alaska election isn’t historically low; it’s historically very, very high for a primary election — no doubt because it was contested, but that basically undermines his claim that voters, having deserted the parties, no longer will be satisfied with primaries which exclude them from choosing candidates.
Just to demonstrate: This year’s Nevada GOP primary was high-profile on the GOP side, with Harry Reid quietly renominated on the Democratic side. Primary election turnout, 292K. General election turnout, 720K. Primary as percent of general, 41%. And again, that’s with a very spirited primary on one side. Anything over 60% is, really, shockingly high.
Unfortunately, I don’t have readily available primary turnouts from the 1950s. There’s some evidence that midterm primary turnout has dropped since the mid-1960s, but so has general election turnout in midterms. And one needs to be careful of all such numbers — the denominator shifts with the addition of 18 year olds after the passage of the 26th Amendment matters, as do other relatively technical issues. Moreover, with the demise of the Solid South, primaries in statewide races are now rarely the most important election, which may affect participation.
The point is, again, that after some quick checking, I can’t tell you for sure about whether the relationship between primary and general election voters has changed since the 1950s. Neither can Matt Bai, but he’s going to make grandiose claims, anyway. I do know that a primary electorate that’s over three-fifths the size of a general electorate is very high, either this year or historically.
And, yes, I should mention too that his basic premise of an explosion of independent voters is also completely wrong. There are a lot of very interesting stories to explore in the Alaska Senate election, but none of them have anything to do with a mythical rise of independents.
*All other numbers here are approximate, but 100K primary turnout in Alaska in 1980? How about: exactly 100K. No rounding. Exactly 100,000 votes cast. At least according to the wikipedia page, and my (by hand, but twice) addition. Weird, no?
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11