Florida Primaries Foreshadow Turnout Levels in November

As a barometer of the national mood, Florida has a lot to offer.

As a barometer of the national mood, Florida has a lot to offer. A large and diverse state, dotted with small and large media markets across widely divergent geography and population dynamics, Florida is an electoral microcosm of the nation. No other primary race this season reveals as much about voting behavior as Florida’s. 

Much attention is being given to the electoral showing that Marco Rubio received on Tuesday. As of the time of this writing, with nearly all precincts reporting, 1.25 million Republicans voted in the Senate primary. In a race without any serious competition, Rubio received the votes of more than a million registered Republicans. Compare that to the 910,698 registered Democrats that voted in a highly contested Democratic Senate primary between billionaire Jeff Greene and the newly-minted Democratic Nominee Kendrick Meek. Florida is a closed primary state and only allows voters registered to a party to vote in a primary. The enthusiasm gap is palpable.

What deserves more intense scrutiny is the total turnout on the Republican side for Florida’s tightly contested Governor’s race that resulted in the upset victory of Rick Scott. 1.28 million Republicans voted for one of three candidates for governor of Florida. That amounts to full 32 percent of Florida’s Republicans. Approximately 40,000 fewer votes were cast in the Senate race, which is typical for races that are not the top of the ticket. By contrast, only 863,981 Democrats voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary which delivered the nomination to Alex Sink. Sink was not seriously contested, that race only drew 18.7 percent of registered Democrats, but the highly contested Senate race only drew a single percentage point more votes (19.7 percent). 

To find an appropriate comparison for Democratic turnout at the gubernatorial level in Florida, the most recent example would be the contested primary in 2002 between former Attorney General Janet Reno and attorney and husband to current Democratic candidate Alex Sink, Bill McBride. That was a contentious primary that delivered a slim 0.4 percentage point victory for Bill McBride. In that race, 1,357,017 registered Democrats came out to vote. Of the state’s 3.96 million registered Democrats (at the time) 34 percent of them voted in that primary. But in 2006, even with a tightly contested primary between Rod Smith and Jim Davis, only 20 percent of registered Democrats voted.

While the Democratic primary vote can swing significantly in a given year, Republican primary voters are predictably stable. Republicans had a competitive primary for Attorney General in 2002 as well, and in a three way race between Charlie Crist, Tom Warner and Locke Burt, Crist won with 50 percent of the 966,875 Republicans that voted – 26 percent of the state’s total registered Republicans. The numbers were similar in the 2006 gubernatorial primary with 25 percent of Republicans voting.

Some conclusions we can draw from this analysis of recent midterm primary history in the Sunshine state is that even contested primaries do not necessarily mean a large draw.

In 2006, the Republican Tom Gallagher did not mount a serious challenge to Charlie Crist’s vie for the statehouse. Nevertheless, a stable 25 percent of Republicans came out. By contrast, Democratic voters in the state were very sensitive to the level of competition in a primary race. When there was a serious contest in the primaries, between two well known candidates, Democratic voters came out in force. When the primary competition was less fierce, Democrats stayed home.

There is no midterm election year with comparable Republican primary turnout to 2010. Going as far back as 1990, no Florida primary election even comes close to the 32 of percent Republican turnout that was observed on Tuesday.

Florida’s primary is an anecdotal metric when attempting to predict turnout levels in the general election, but it is a good indicator of the enthusiasm gap developing between Republicans and Democrats. In 2008, that passion was solidly on the Democratic side. In this year, it has been clearly on the Republican side, but there has not been reliable numbers to measure that gap until Florida’s primary.

The last big round of primaries will be held on September 14th, most of which will take place in the North East. While those races will be interesting, the GOP primary for Delaware New Hampshire Senate are somewhat competitive, the New York state Republican primary for Senate is the only true statewide race that is a tossup. Tuesday’s race in the Sunshine State is the most predictive model that exists to gauge potential turnout levels. The conclusions to be drawn are obvious; Democrats need to close the gap – and fast.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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