Florida has a seriously contested governor’s race this year — the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Republican incumbent Rick Scott leading 43.5 percent to 42.5 percent over Democrat (and former Republican Governor) Charlie Crist — and I thought it might be revealing to compare the turnout in yesterday’s Republican and Democratic primaries, in which each candidate had one little-known opponent.
The official results, as I write, show 952,013 votes cast in the Republican primary and 837,720 votes cast in the Democratic primary. The 834,395 votes cast for Scott in the Republican primary fall just short of the total votes in the Democratic primary. And this despite the fact that primary voting is limited to those registered in each party and, again according to official figures, there are more registered Democrats (4,599,326) than registered Republicans (4,144,186). So registered Republicans outvoted registered Democrats, even though they are significantly outnumbered by them. A good sign for Republican turnout in November, no?
Well, not necessarily. There have been more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida more or less forever, certainly since Reconstruction (when black voters put Florida in the Republican column in 1868, 1872 and 1876). But registered Republicans have outvoted registered Democrats in Florida primaries now for more than 20 years. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be too much correlation, at least in Florida, between relative primary turnout and general election performance. The following table shows primary turnout in Florida for each party over the last quarter-century; it also shows which party’s candidate won the office in November. Florida doesn’t count votes in races where only one candidate qualifies for the primary ballot. But the key fact is that registered Democrats have not outvoted registered Republicans in Florida primaries since 1992, with the single exception of the 2000 Senate primary. The 2008 presidential primary might have been another exception, but for the fact that the national Democratic party ruled that it was conducted too early for it to count, which presumably held turnout down.
|Race||GOP primary turnout||Dem primary turnout||General election winner|
The continuing plurality of registered Democrats over registered Republicans in Florida is pretty clearly a vestige of a historic Democratic heritage, dating back to the Civil War, which is now almost entirely irrelevant to general election voting. People tend to get registered in one party, often because its primary winners tend to win local and state legislative general elections, and stay registered in that party — even when they regularly or pretty regularly vote for the other party in general elections, or at least in presidential, congressional and statewide elections.
That’s why I’m skeptical of those who urge that primary voting be limited to those registered in that party. The body of party registrants is not necessarily identical to the body of its current supporters. Party registration tends to freeze in party coalitions of the past and freeze out those ready to join party coalitions of the future. In Florida, the body of registered Democrats obviously includes many people who haven’t voted Democratic in a non-local, seriously contested election in a very long time. These people, or their ancestors, were a serious force in Florida presidential primaries up through the 1980s. Today, they simply sit out the primary and vote Republican in general elections.