Last week, the Utah Republican Party announced its decision not to hold a primary next year. Instead, it’s a return to old-fashioned, face-to-face meetings that decide the nominee for President of the United States of America.
My colleague Robert Gehrke has already written on the subject. His story included quotes from Gov. Spencer Cox about how the selected delegates in the GOP’s last election in 2016 “did not represent the Republican Party at all.”
My question: is that really true? I think we can all agree that election meetings are more inconvenient than their primary equivalents, especially when absentee ballots are the norm in traditional primary elections. But how much does that actually change the electorate? Can we quantify these changes?
Voter turnout at election meetings has fallen
There’s no denying it: voter turnouts are terrible for voter turnout compared to standard primaries. As Gehrke noted, 177,000 Republicans attended the 2016 Utah caucuses. When the party used a traditional primary in 2020, about 345,000 Republicans participated.
This is a nationwide trend. DC think tank Third Way put together this helpful comparison of every state’s 2016 vs. 2020 primary and turnout. Note that they compared Democratic primaries and turnouts, not Republicans, because a new presidential candidate had to be elected in both years. (In 2020, the Republican nominee should obviously be incumbent Donald Trump.)
Period, every caucus state lagged behind every primary state. It is indeed breathtaking. Even Iowa — which hosts a caucus at the first election rally of the primary season and is therefore of paramount importance to the rest of the country — failed to attract more people than an ordinary primary in a well-known undemocratic Tennessee stronghold.
In 2020, several states did not fund their parties’ presidential primaries, so the Democratic parties in five states held party-run primaries, using various party-sponsored methods to obtain ballots from their constituents. These have not done very well in generating turnout, nor have electoral assemblies been successful.
Note the increase in Utah turnout from 4.2% in 2016 to 10.2% in 2020 on the Democratic side. Utah, along with Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska and Washington, was among the seven states that switched from caucuses to primary elections between the two years. According to Third Way, a total of 746,000 people attended the 2016 election rallies; In 2020, a total of 3,962,000 people took part in their primaries. Again, an amazing difference.
A changing electorate
So it’s clear that, overall, fewer people turn up for election meetings than for primaries. However, that does not necessarily mean that the results are different. If three people vote for Trump and two for Ron DeSantis in a caucus, but in a primary, six people vote for Trump and four people for DeSantis, it doesn’t really matter much – the margins are 60% to 40% for Trump like that or so.
In addition, we must be careful that the characteristics of the electoral body change at election meetings and not at primary elections.
It turns out that this question is harder to answer than I expected. I was expecting mountains of public research on the subject, but there really wasn’t much.
The problem is how we understand who is voting in an election. There is no question of gender, race, income, etc. on the ballot, and rightly so. That is, to learn who is turning up to vote, we rely on large-sample exit polls to understand who voted. In college, I took the 2012 Utah Colleges Voting Outcome Poll — which meant standing outside a polling station and asking people who had just left the polling station who they were and how they voted. In total, we polled 13,725 eligible Utah voters across the state that day. Really great!
But election polls are not particularly common in primary elections and quite uncommon in caucuses. Without this information, we have limited information about who voted and why.
However, a study gave me the idea I’ve used here Split. Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, wrote an article titled “Are Electoral Assemblies Bad for Democracy?” in 2010. To study voter turnout, he used data from the Cooperative Election Study (CES) instead of polling data. , a respected poll that surveys over 50,000 Americans each election cycle.
One question pollsters ask is whether a respondent voted in the primary or caucus. So we can only look at those who said yes. One reason we know it’s a good poll is that a respondent’s yes or no answer is verified against public voting records.
Unlike Panagopoulos, I want to expand Utah. So I looked at a total of about 631,000 participants, just got the data from the 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020 presidential election years and compared three different groups:
• All Utahns who responded to CES
• Utahns who voted in a primary
• Utahns who voted in a caucus
I found the following:
Many demographic metrics are a sliding scale: people who tend to vote at all in primary elections are already a bit different from the general population. People who attend gatherings tend to be even more diverse.
For example, 49.9% of the participating Utahns were male, but of those who voted in primary elections, nearly 56% were male. And at election meetings, just over 60% of the participants were men. Ditto for race — caucus-goers tended to be slightly whiter than the rest.
They also tended to be older – the average survey participant was 44 years old, while the average caucus attendee was 53 years old. But other related metrics change even more than age alone can explain. There were almost twice as many pensioners at the election meetings as the total population would suggest. Those who had children under the age of 18 were significantly less likely to attend an election rally.
Age is part of this story, but so is time; Those who are retired and don’t have children simply have more time to attend a caucus evening than those who don’t. Caucus attendees were more likely to be single than the general population. While political nerds might think caucus night is great date night, most people probably wouldn’t.
I also found the aspect of health insurance interesting. Almost everyone who takes part in the caucus evening has health insurance, and at significantly higher rates than the rest of the population. I can’t blame anyone who chooses not to attend a crowded campaign event where disease is more likely to spread if they don’t have the insurance to deal with that potential disease. This can also result in candidates being less interested in universal health insurance than the population as a whole.
It’s worth noting, however, that there were many metrics that didn’t show much difference between those who attended caucuses and those who voted in traditional primary elections. Take income: About 20.7% of congregation attendees earned between $10,000 and $40,000 per year; In the primaries, that number was about 20.8%. The educational gap was not large either: 57.1% of area code voters had a college degree, compared to 58.6% of eligible voters.
More tenants voted at election meetings (20% of eligible voters) than at primary elections (17.2%). However, tenants in both groups accounted for a significantly lower proportion than in the state as a whole (32.7%).
In Utah, religion often plays a political role. Both primary voters and caucus attendees attended church each week (or more often) significantly more frequently than those who did not vote. Both were more likely to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in this category, primary voters (54.9%) were slightly more likely to be believers than caucus voters (53.6%) or respondents overall (50.6%).
There are several ways to collect this data. Panagopoulos was among those who saw only a few percentage points difference in gender, race and education between faction and primary voters, saying this shows that factions are, in his words, not “particularly bad for democracy”. Caucuses are generally less expensive than their primary counterparts.
On the other hand, any difference between groups of voters in razor-thin elections can be significant, and in some categories the difference between those voting in caucuses and primary elections can be quite large. For example, Utah residents consistently say that improving K-12 education is one of their top concerns. But if less than 20% of caucus attendees have children in that system, are the delegates or candidates who elect them likely to prioritize that system? A 2011 Hinckley Institute study said no.
I tend to fall on that side of things. It’s hard for me to justify holding election assemblies instead of primary elections given the turnout issues the data has revealed. The government likely needs more voices from all sectors of society, and not just those willing to spend the night talking politics with their neighbors.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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