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Let's Take A Look At That Democratic Primary Turnout

Gabriel C. Pérez
Voters line up to cast ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the UT Austin campus on Tuesday.

During early voting in the primaries, a theme developed around what was happening in Texas. The narrative became that Democrats ­– perhaps improbably – were outpacing Republicans at the polls. Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz sounded the alarm to Republicans.

The reasoning went that an unpopular president was propelling Democratic turnout to record numbers — and that could portend a “blue wave” in Texas and elsewhere. Well, Democrats’ motivation for voting in big numbers may have been Trump-related, but those predictions of a “blue wave”? Not so fast.

After early voting ended, the Texas Secretary of State published turnout numbers for the state’s 15 largest counties. It showed Democrats with a turnout advantage of about 45,000. But it didn’t tell the whole story.

Final numbers after Election Day – which include the entire state, not just the urban areas – show Republicans outvoted Democrats by about 202,000 in early voting.

In the end, about 1,544,000 people voted in the Republican primary – or about 10.1 percent of the total registered voters in the state. About 1,038,000 voted in the Democratic primary – about 6.8 percent of registered voters.

Republicans had about a 10 percent increase in turnout overall from the last midterm primary in 2014. But turnout in the Democratic primary was up by about 80 percent over 2014.

On a raw numbers basis, the Republicans had their biggest midterm primary showing ever. The Democrats had their biggest turnout since 1990.

If you look at the percentages of registered voters, the Democrats actually turned out a smaller percentage than in 2002. This year is more similar in some ways to 2002 than 2014, when a Democrat was in his second term in the White House. The 2002 primary came in the middle of a Republican president’s first term. (Of course, there is a major difference: It came only about six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a time when George W. Bush’s approval rating nationally was in the 80 percent range.)

But if you look at 2002, when Democrats last posted primary numbers like this, there was little change in outcomes in November. Overwhelmingly, incumbents – both Democrat and Republican – won re-election. Statewide, of course, Republicans ran the board.

So what does it mean?

Well, the truth is, no one really knows. But there are some educated guesses out there. Josh Blank over at UT’s Texas Politics Project offered this take last week:

While Texas Democrats may indeed perform better in the 2018 general election compared with their recent performances, historical election data from the past 20 years fails to display any clear relationship between primary participation and general election outcomes in Texas.
... It appears as though in the three elections in the last 20 years in which Democrats held a primary participation advantage [1998, 2002, and 2004], in two of those cases (1998 and 2004) the Republican electoral advantage turned out to be larger than in any other election in the time series.

So, increased turnout in the primaries may result in more enthusiasm, maybe more fundraising — but history tells us not to take for granted that it will translate into big gains in November.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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