Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu March 6, 2016

David Brooks is right: Primary turnout doesn't predict general election outcomes

Republican candidates and party leaders have touted high voter turnout in the GOP primary as a good sign for the general election, but conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks isn’t so sure.

"There’s no correlation between primary turnout and wins in the fall in the last 11 elections," Brooks said on Meet the Press on March 6.

Is Brooks right that the GOP’s numbers, which surpass Democratic turnout, mean little for the general election?  

We didn’t hear back from Brooks, but the data shows and experts agree that more votes in the nominating contests aren’t necessarily harbingers of November victories.

Turn out for what

It’s important to note that not all 11 presidential cycles had competitive primary contests on both sides.

Primary turnout was low in five elections simply because one party’s nomination was locked up by incumbent presidents, and thus not predictive of general election results. In 1984, for example, the Democratic primary turned out about three times more voters than the Republican primary. Nonetheless, President Ronald Reagan won re-election with almost 60 percent of the popular vote.

In the six elections where there were contests on both sides, the party with the higher primary voter turnout won the popular vote just three times. In 1976, 1992 and 2008, Democratic primary turnout surpassed that of the GOP nominating race, and the Democratic candidates won the general election.

Here’s a chart showing this, compiled with data from the Federal Election Commission and a few other sources. (Bold indicates the party that won in the general election, and an asterisk indicates an election where both parties had competitive primary contests.)


GOP primary votes (% of voting age population)

Dem primary votes (% of voting age population)


19,530,335 (9.5 percent)

8,571,580 (6.1 percent)


20,790,899 (10.7 percent)

37,235,154 (21.0 percent)


7,940,331 (6.3 percent)

15,975,066 (10.8 percent)


17,156,117 (10.6 percent)

14,045,745 (9.7 percent)


14,233,939 (9.1 percent)

10,883,909 (8.6 percent)


12,696,547 (8.8 percent)

20,239,385 (14.1 percent)


12,165,115 (9.1 percent)

22,961,936 (17.0 percent)


6,563,029 (6.6 percent)

18,009,217 (17.3 percent)


12,690,451 (11.3 percent)

18,747,825 (14.7 percent)


10,374,125 (11.5 percent)

16,052,652 (17.6 percent)


6,175,199 (8.4 percent)

15,993,965 (20.8 percent)


In the other three elections, more votes in the primary didn’t lead to more votes in the general.

About 6 million more votes were cast for the Democratic nomination in 1980, but Republican Ronald Reagan won about 8.5 million votes in the general election.

Similarly, in 1988, Democratic turnout was almost double that of GOP turnout in the primaries, but George H.W. Bush won the election with about 7 million more votes.

And in 2000, about 3 million more voters turned out for the Republican primary, but George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. (Bush won the electoral college and thus the election.)

Primary causes

Though it may not be the single predictor of a general election win, enthusiasm in the nominating contests is still meaningful.

Democratic turnout this election cycle may be lower because the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is simply not as competitive or diverse as the Republican race.

Exit polls show that the vast majority of voters in the Democratic primary are satisfied with either Clinton or Sanders, pointed out Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and turnout guru.

"On the Republican side, 50 percent or less say that," McDonald said, pointing out that some are casting ballots in the GOP primary to vote against a candidate as much as they're there to  vote for one. "Voters see stark differences between the candidates, and they’re not as happy if the opposing candidate would win."

Overall though, more votes in the primaries may not mean much in what will be a highly competitive general election, according to McDonald. He pointed out that the Democrats, while not turning up at the primary polls in droves, are still highly engaged.

"Those numbers have got to be pleasing and there are good reasons why the Republicans will be able to leverage the turnout. But I don’t think it means they’re going to win," he said. "I would have to agree with (Brooks) on this."

Our ruling

Brooks said, "There’s no correlation between primary turnout and wins in the fall in the last 11 elections."

There were competitive primaries on both sides in six out of the past 11 elections. In three of those six elections, the party that saw more votes in nomination contest also got more votes in the general.

We rate Brooks’ claim True.  

Our Sources

NBC, Meet the Press, March 6

Federal Election Commission, Election Results 1984-2012, accessed March 6, 2016

Real Clear Politics, "How Much Does Voter Turnout Matter?" Feb. 1, 2012

Our Campaigns, US Presidential Democratic and Republican primaries 1972-2000, accessed March 6, 2016

Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Results 1972-2000, accessed March 6, 2016

Interview with Matthew McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida, March 6, 2016

Email interview with Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, March 6, 2016

Vox, "Why Democrats (probably) shouldn't worry about record Republican primary turnout," Feb. 14, 2016

NPR, "Will High Tide Of Primary Voter Turnout Float Republicans In November?" Feb. 26, 2016

CBS, "What do the turnout numbers say about the 2016 race?," Feb. 29, 2016

Washington Post, "Republicans are voting more than Democrats in 2016. Will that matter in November?," Feb. 29, 2016

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Linda Qiu

David Brooks is right: Primary turnout doesn't predict general election outcomes

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up