No matter the internal strife over Donald Trump’s presidential bid, the intensely competitive Republican primary contest is bringing a booming number of voters to the polls – while Democratic turnout plunges, raising questions about whether these trends will last through November.
For the Republicans, turnout has been higher than in 2008 across every state to vote so far this year. In Virginia and Texas, turnout was 100 percent higher.
Meanwhile, Democratic turnout was down in every state that has held a primary and caucus except Colorado. In some states -- including Nevada, Tennessee and Texas -- it dropped more than 30 percent. Overall, voter turnout from the Super Tuesday states was 66 percent higher for the Republicans, and 31 percent lower for the Democrats.
For one, analysts say there’s a sense of excitement on the Republican side that just isn’t there in the comparatively lackluster battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“Boring old Hillary versus Bernie just didn’t seem to captivate people’s imagination here,” said Tom Whalen, professor of politics at Boston University in Massachusetts.
The 2016 Democratic race also isn’t coming close to fueling the kind of enthusiasm seen in 2008, when Clinton’s epic battle against Barack Obama drove record primary turnout. This time, the Republican contest is the showstopper – and the Trump factor cannot be understated.
In Whalen’s state, 20,000 Democrats left the party and either went independent or switched to the Republican Party to vote in Tuesday’s primary.
Trump won Massachusetts overwhelmingly – and Whalen said the excitement levels on the Democratic side just can’t compare. The question for the Democratic Party is whether the sagging turnout is a temporary phase – and, if Clinton wins the nomination, whether she has what it takes to energize Dems for the big fight this fall.
“On the Democratic side, all of [Clinton’s] experience and credentials are working against her in this environment, and she is just not inspiring the kind of intense support that that Barack Obama did [in 2008] -- or like Trump is doing,” former Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said.
Bill Scher, a senior writer for the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, suggests the reason Democratic numbers appear low is because in 2008 Obama was the phenom, and he was locked in a tight race with Clinton that went on all the way to June.
“There isn’t the sense of drama” among the Dems, certainly not the kind that is playing on the GOP side, he said.
For all the debate about whether Sanders would lead a successful party insurgency against Hillary, “the Nevada caucus took a lot of wind out of the Sanders’ juggernaut,” said Scher.
Scher acknowledged that in his home state of Massachusetts, thousands of people chose to vote in the Republican Party and many stayed home, cooling their heels until the general election.
However, “I would be very cautious in assuming what happens in a primary automatically tells you what is going to happen in the general,” he said, pointing to polls that have Clinton beating Trump, albeit by a slim margin, in a head-to-head match-up.
That’s where the Trump energy is going to matter the most, say experts. He is bringing new voters to the Republican contests and across the demographics, particularly among blue-collar, lower-income voters who have expressed an anger with the government and seeking a political outsider for the White House.
“He’s the reason why there’s a boost at the polls,” said Whalen.
“That makes him a pretty formidable figure. He’s going to be a big threat [in the general].”
But as GOPAC Chairman Dave Avella points out, four in 10 voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the GOP nominee, which suggests there was something else driving people to the polls last Tuesday.
“The record turnout in the Republican primary speaks to the intensity the Republicans have to get past Obama’s tenure as well as the number of voters rallying to the candidates’ messages,” he told FoxNews.com.
“A lot of that would certainly be Mr. Trump’s message bringing people into the Republican primary voting process, but so are the messages of Senators Cruz and Rubio, and Governor Kasich. Maybe not to the same level, but they are.”
There are other, less glamorous reasons for the spike in turnout: typically primary and caucus turnout is higher for the party that is out of the White House. In 2008, Democrats not only had Barack Obama, but it was the year they were vying to take back the presidency for the first time since 2000.
Further, the 103 percent increase in GOP turnout in Texas and 50 percent increase in Vermont may be skewed -- neither state participated in Super Tuesday in 2008 and in fact their contests were scheduled much later, when it was clear John McCain would be the nominee.
Come the general election, Whalen expects “record turnout.”
Whether that will be on either side or from both parties will remain to be seen, said Gerstein. “It will depend on how many people who are cynical and turned off by Washington, versus people who will come out against Trump,” he said. “Is the anti-establishment vote going to be stronger than the anti-Trump vote? This is going to be the real test of the Hillary Clinton campaign. Can they turn that antipathy, even disgust into votes for her?”