Turnout dynamics for the August primary
The Missouri primary is an “open” primary, meaning any registered voter can cast votes in any party’s primary. The voter has no obligation to vote for the same party or candidates in the November general election as she/he did in the August primary. Nevertheless, many voters shun voting in a primary. First, they need to be knowledgeable enough to be able to pick particular candidates, without being able to just vote a “straight ticket.” That is an intimidating chore to many. Primary voters are also obligated to announce to the election judge (and anyone else in earshot) which party’s ballot they want. That too is intimidating to many. And once the choice is made, one cannot “split the ticket” in the primary, by voting, for example, for a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator and for one of the five Republicans running for state auditor. As a result, primary elections almost always draw fewer voters than general elections, even in party-dominant areas like St. Louis where the most important decisions are made during the primary.
Even among voters willing to jump through the hoops to vote in a primary, turnout rates vary a lot. Primaries in non-presidential years (like this one) usually draw fewer voters than presidential-year primaries. For example, in the primary two years ago, early GOTV efforts by MTV’s “Rock the Vote” and George Soros-financed groups like America Coming Together had already increased political awareness among young voters who were highly motivated to unseat President George W. Bush, inspiring many of them to vote in a primary for the first time (even though Bush would not appear on the ballot until November). Other items on the same ballot, such as contentious races in other contests and controversial ballot measures, also raise turnout in a particular primary election. Two years ago, turnout in the primary was inflated by interest in the “definition of marriage” constitutional amendment and the contentious gubernatorial bout between Gov. Bob Holden and challenger Claire McCaskill.
All of those factors caused turnout in 2004 to be relatively high for a primary. Those factors aren’t present now to motivate voters to take part in the 2006 primary. Moreover, the external factors that are at work this year are having exactly the opposite effect. Most notably, numerous scandals involving prominent people in both major parties have made voters weary and disgusted with both Republicans and Democrats. Earlier primaries in other states have recorded very low turnouts, and Missouri shouldn’t be any different. Bottom line: Turnout on August 8 will be very low.
Each vote in a low-turnout election has disproportionately more clout than when diluted by the votes of more casual voters in a high-turnout election. Low-turnout elections favor the following kinds of candidates:
1. Those who are or who are backed by party regulars, especially those whose followers are dependent on party patronage. These people always vote, as though their very livelihood depends on it, because for many it really does. Their candidates do better when their votes aren't diluted by many casual voters.
2. Candidates with a good grassroots organizations, especially GOTV “ground games.” The candidate who can get more “casual” voters favoring her/him to vote has a big advantage over an opponent who cannot motivate her/his supporters off the couch. Only the votes that are actually cast count. The one-on-one action of grassroots activity reaches relatively few voters. The injection of those relatively few voters is most decisive in low-turnout elections.
3. Candidates who appeal to highly motivated single-issue voters. What motivates voters varies from year to year, but racial and ethnic appeals, stands appealing to either religious fervor or threats to lifestyle (such as abortion) and chauvinistic appeals to patriotism are usually good bets. Appeals to class warfare are less effective in a primary, when all of the contestants are probably on the same side.
These are the factors shaping what the Oracle’s crystal ball sees happening on August 8. The first predictions will surface in the special election edition of the Arch City Chronicle, which will be available in hardcopy on August 1.