Politics
Politics

The millions of new voters spurred by Donald Trump and other campaign myths, debunked

The 2016 presidential campaign, like most, has spawned many myths – half-truths, delusions and some outright falsehoods – that spread through the Internet and over the airwaves. These four have taken on outsized prominence.

Myth No. 1: Donald Trump has drawn “millions” of Democrats, independents and previously disengaged citizens into the GOP.

Trump, himself, frequently repeats some version of this claim. Like many myths, it originated with a seed of truth that it has far outgrown.

The truthful part is that turnout has increased in Republican primaries compared with four years ago – up by about 7.5 million votes, or about 60% so far, according to a state-by-state compilation of figures by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, one of the country’s leading experts on voter turnout.

Part of the increase undoubtedly comes from people who showed up to oppose Trump. But most of those new primary voters almost certainly showed up to vote for him. Trump gets political credit for mobilizing them to cast a ballot.

But increasing turnout in a Republican primary isn’t the same as drawing new people into the GOP. A large majority of voters every year sit out the primaries, so increased primary turnout usually means exciting existing partisans, not creating new ones. Exit polls indicate that's what has happened this year, as in previous turnout surges in both parties.

Late last month, the Massachusetts secretary of state got a lot of attention by reporting that about 16,000 people had changed their registration from Democratic to Republican in the weeks before the state’s primary. But that’s hardly millions, nor is it unprecedented. The share of voters in that state’s GOP primary who identified themselves as Democrats on the exit poll was 5% this year, was  almost identical to the 4% from four years ago.

In Iowa’s caucuses this year, Trump clearly did well with first-time participants. The share of voters taking part in the state’s caucuses for the first time rose from 38% in the 2012 exit poll to 45% in 2016, and Trump won the first-timers handily. In New Hampshire, by contrast, the 15% of voters casting a GOP primary ballot for the first time this year was only marginally higher than the 12% four years ago, and Trump’s share of their votes, 38%, was only slightly better than the 35% he got among repeat voters.

Myth No. 2: A drop in turnout in Democratic primaries means trouble in November.

This one gets currency in part because it fits easily into an existing story line – that Hillary Clinton hasn’t excited Democrats.

But turnout in primaries has almost no relationship to turnout in the general election. Moreover, since Democratic primary turnout in 2008 hit record levels, a downturn this year was nearly guaranteed.

Over the last four decades, in elections where both parties had contested primaries, the relationship between primary and general election turnout is clear: none. Half the time, the party with higher turnout in the primaries won the general election; half the time it lost.

In 2008, Democrats had a big turnout upsurge and then-Sen. Barack Obama went on to win the election. But the previous record Democratic primary turnout came in 1988; Michael Dukakis lost that year. Before that, the highest Democratic primary turnout was in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid.

The lack of a relationship shouldn’t be surprising. Voters show up for primaries when voters see an engaging contest among contrasting candidates, noted McDonald.

The Clinton-Obama race in 2008 drew huge interest among Democrats, so did the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s bid for the nomination in 1988 and the effort by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980 to block Carter’ renomination.

By contrast, “the casual voter is not going to see a lot of differences between”  Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, nor do most voters think Clinton will lose, McDonald said. As a result, primary turnout has declined from the record level of 2008 to something near average for recent contested election cycles.

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Moreover, while Republicans do score higher when pollsters ask if people are closely following the election or are excited about it, that also doesn’t predict much. Republicans were more excited in 2012. Obama won anyway.

Myth No. 3: “The Hispanics love me.”

That’s a quote from Trump, of course, speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He made that claim in July and renewed it after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses in February.

In Nevada, the entrance poll indicated that Trump had won among Latino voters. But that finding needs several very big caveats:

The number of Latinos voting in the Nevada Republican caucus was very small – only 8% of the turnout – so the poll’s margin of error is very big. In addition, although entrance and exit polls do a pretty good job of determining the votes of groups that are spread more or less evenly across the population – first-time voters, for example – they’re much less accurate at telling us about groups that live in some places, not others, such as members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

In any case, the vast majority of Latino voters do not take part in Republican primaries, so even if Trump did win Latinos who showed up for Nevada's Republican caucuses, that outcome wouldn't say much about Latino attitudes overall.

Those attitudes are pretty clear: Trump’s popularity among Latinos is beyond terrible. According to the most recent data from Gallup, 77% of Latino Americans have a negative view of him.

Trump’s image among Latinos was bad last summer, it’s gotten significantly worse and now is notably poorer than Mitt Romney’s was four years ago when he received only about one-in-four Latino votes.

Myth No. 4: The Democrats’ so-called super-delegates have stacked the deck against Sanders.

Clinton does have a big lead among the super-delegates, the more than 700 party leaders and elected officials who automatically get a vote in the nominating convention and can choose whichever candidate they want, regardless of who won their party’s primary.

That has upset a number of Sanders partisans, who say the super-delegate system is unfair and undemocratic.

Whatever the merits of the system – right now, a lot of Republicans wish they had something similar to block Trump – it was set up long before Clinton ever thought of running for office. Super-delegates were a product of a Democratic party commission set up in 1982 and were first put in place in the 1984 election cycle.

In any case, Sanders’ problem right now isn’t super-delegates, it’s the ordinary, pledged delegates who are allocated by the primaries and caucuses. Clinton leads by well over 300 among them.

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @DavidLauter

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