Will voter turnout prove pundits wrong?
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Chances are you’re not voting on Tuesday. Okay, if you’re reading the Sunday Viewpoints section, you’re probably more likely than average to vote in the September primary, but most of your neighbors aren’t going to join you. Secretary of State Bill Gardner projects that 168,000 New Hampshire voters will cast ballots this week, 102,000 in the Republican primary, 66,000 in the Democratic.
Gardner has a pretty good track record of estimating turnout out. He said 250,000 people would vote in the January presidential primary, and the actual total was 249,534. That’s a pretty good guess, unless you’re on The Price is Right.
New Hampshire has a population of 1.47 million people, with just under a million eligible to vote. As of the presidential primary, there were 791,000 voters registered. New Hampshire towns aren’t great at purging their checklists of voters who died or moved away, so official voter turnout percentages can be misleading.
Still, just 168,000 out of nearly a million people who could choose to vote on Tuesday will do so. Some see this as an indictment of American democracy. I see it as most people deciding they have more important things to do. I like to vote, and if you’re still reading after two paragraphs of voter turnout statistics, you probably do, too.
If what you really want is higher turnout, you should hope for more expensive campaigns and more annoying commercials. Looking back at the data since 1980, the best way to bring more people to the polls is to flood their TV screens with those ads we all hate so much.
Granite State Republicans set a primary turnout record in 2002, with nearly 156,000 voters. That year, gubernatorial candidate Craig Benson easily set the state campaign spending record, but rivals Gordon Humphrey and Bruce Keough also spent more than any previous candidate in a primary. The nationally watched U.S. Senate primary between incumbent Republican Bob Smith and challenger John E. Sununu was an undercard. The three gubernatorial candidates combined for nearly $20 million in that campaign; most of that showing up on your TV screen.
The only race approaching 2002′s record was 2010, when Bill Binnie unleashed a tsunami of TV ads against Kelly Ayotte in the Republican Senate primary. Ayotte, Lamontagne, and Jim Bender were also running ads in heavy rotation. The nonstop advertising barrage upset people who just wanted to watch Dancing With The Stars. But it also got 141,000 people to the polls.
Gardner says primary turnout is driven by the number and intensity of statewide primaries. High or low turnout doesn’t predict that party’s chances in November, and contested congressional or state Senate races don’t drive voters nearly as much as tight races for governor and U.S. Senate.
New Hampshire Democrats have fewer contested primaries than Republicans and have always had lower primary turnout, even in high-tide years like 2006.
Conventional wisdom is that Democrat Jackie Cilley needs low turnout to beat Maggie Hassan for her party’s gubernatorial nomination. Hassan has taken the Pledge to veto a sales or income tax, while Cilley has not. Pundits argue that Cilley needs the hard-core activists who’ll show up to vote in a hurricane, while Hassan would appeal to the more moderate Democratic voters who may or may not show up on Tuesday. I’m not so sure.
The highest voter turnout comes in years when Democratic candidates run on an income tax platform.
Democrats set their primary record back in 1992, when more than 91,000 voters nominated Arnie Arnesen over Ned Helms and Norm D’Amours. The next highest turnout was in 2000 at 75,000. Mark Fernald got 38 percent of the vote against popular two-term incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. In 2002, Fernald captured the nomination over state Senate President Bev Hollingworth with nearly 70,000 votes cast in the primary.
It seems there are thousands of registered Democrats who don’t show up in September unless they can support an income tax candidate.
Income tax advocate Bill Kennedy will also be on the Democratic ballot Tuesday and had a strong showing at last week’s WMUR debate. But he’s campaigned on a shoestring and isn’t on TV. Cilley isn’t saying if she’d support an income tax, but her “Tax Zombies” ad is an internet sensation. It may have tapped into the feelings of Democrats who want their party to keep pushing for a broad-based tax. Cilley needs these sometimes voters to show up on Tuesday.
Grant Bosse is vice president for media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.
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