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Predicting Minnesota’s Gubernatorial Primary Turnout

What factors influence primary turnout in Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections and what
will the turnout be for both the Republican and Democratic parties this August? Both of these
questions are on minds of politicos as predictions mount in anticipation of the August 14, results.
The simple answer is that no one knows, but there are indications that the drivers of turnout in
gubernatorial primaries have little to do with state politics or races and instead reflect national
trends and moods in politics.
Past performance does not guarantee future results. This is true both for stock markets
and politics. Yet past performance provides insights into what might happen in 2018. The
attached table and chart look at Democrat and Republican Party primary turnout for the last six
gubernatorial elections. During this time there have been several changes in Minnesota election
law or politics that potentially affect turnout, thereby making it difficult to isolate anyone factor.
Consider some factors.

Primary Voter Turnout: GOP and DFL Gubernatorial Race

Percentage DFL/GOP
Year GOP DFL Total Voted Governor Total Eligible Governor
1994 September 482754 382173 864927 2724046 31.80%
1998 September 140124 494069 634193 2687105 23.60%
2002 September 195099 224238 419337 2812473 14.90%
2006 September 166112 316470 482582 3090921 15.60%
2010 August 130408 442139 572547 3111619 18.39%
2014 August 184110 191259 375369 3111497 12.06%
2018 August* 190000 435,000 625000 3250000 19.20%
* Estimated
First, note that from 1994 to 2014 the general trend has been for primary turnout to go
down. In 1994 nearly 32% of the eligible voters cast primary votes for a DFL or GOP
gubernatorial, decreasing to barely 12% in 2014. Granted that between those two dates there
was one uptick in voting in 2010, but overall the trend line is for fewer and fewer people to show
up to cast a primary ballot. Perhaps this decline reflects a decreasing percentage of the electorate
identifying as a Democrat or Republican.
For example, in 1994 polls listed 42% as self-identified independents, increasing to 51%
by 2014. Declining partisan affiliation thus might be one factor; however it certainly cannot
count for nearly a drop of two-thirds in primary percentage turnout. Moreover, the high number
of independents masks the actual ways that people vote where many of those individuals who
eschew party labels nonetheless vote reliably for one of the two major parties, especially in the
last generation as partisanship and polarization have increased.
A second possibility explaining the decrease is the shift from a September to August
primary. While it too may have some effect, it may be minor. Even before 2010 when the first
August primary occurred the general trend was down. Moreover, the only election since 1994
when the primary participation increased was in 2010–the first year that an August primary
A third possibility is that closely contested and (media) covered primaries produce higher
turnout. Again, this is not the case. In 1994, for example, the Republican primary had very high
turnout, but it was really no contest as incumbent Arne Carlson won big. Similarly, in 1998 and
2002 where there was no incumbent running in either the GOP or DFL primaries, the numbers do
not show that open seats that are presumably more contested produce more voter interest. The
one exception is the 2010 DFL primary that featured three well-known and funded candidates–
Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Matt Entenza–spending heavily in a closely
contested race. Again, it should not come as a surprise that state and local races are not major
drivers of voter turnout–in general voting in these elections is far lower than for the presidential.
Fourth, perhaps early voting impacts turnout. The idea of allowing for no-excuses early
voting is to make casting a ballot more convenient and therefore increase turnout. The first
gubernatorial election with this type of voting was 2014, filing to show an increase in overall
state turnout. Again, this is consistent with research suggesting that early voting does not
necessarily increase overall turnout, it merely stretches voting out over a longer period of time.
So what might drive primary turnout? Look more closely at 1994 and 2010. Both of
those dates are notable as particularly intense and polarized elections. Both took place during the
first midterm elections after the election of presidents in 1992 (Bill Clinton) and 2008 (Barack
Obama). Both elections saw intense interest in national elections that produced change overs in
partisan control of Congress. Perhaps–and this should not be a unexpected–turnout in stte
elections in Minnesota and elsewhere is informed by public awareness and interest in national
elections. Such a conclusion is consistent with political science research on variables impacting
voter turnout.
So what might all this say about 2018 turnout? It too is coming during the first midterm
election after the election of a new president. Polls suggest nationally and in Minnesota voters,
especially Democrats, are energized and excited about politics, mostly because of their dislike
for Trump. Assuming turnout in local primaries is related to national interest in politics expect to
see turnout increase in this primary. Even though there is little evidence that early voting or
contested races impact turnout, both are present here, perhaps facilitating slightly turnout.
Given the above, what can we guess (not predict?) regarding 2018 gubernatorial turnout
for the two major parties? As of May 1, 2018, the Secretary of State listed 3,246,893 as eligible
to vote in Minnesota. By August 14, that number will increase, so assume 3,250,000 eligible
voters. Given intensively in national elections, early voting and contested elections, 190,000 and
435,000 voters will cast ballots in the respective Republican and Democratic Party primaries,
leading to a total of 625,000 voters or 19.2% overall turnout.
Broken down even more, for the Democrats, assume that in a three-way race 40% is
needed to win the primary, 174,000 is the bare minimum needed for victory. For the
Republicans (even though there are three candidates on the primary ballot), assume a two-way
race between Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson and 50% +1 or 87,001 is the minimum threshold
for victory given the estimates here. Of course no candidate should aim for these minimums,
with a better strategy being for a DFL candidate to aim for at least 200,000 and the GOP 100,000
as sufficient margin or errors if turnout is higher than predicted.