Reading The Primary Tea Leaves

[ Posted Wednesday, March 20th, 2024 – 15:41 UTC ]

Because this year's primary season has pretty much been a foregone conclusion on both sides of the aisle, political pundits have been denied their usual "who is up, who is down" frenzy of horserace reporting. Both President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already clinched their respective parties' nominations (and very early on), so there's really not all that much to write about when more states' primary returns come in. However, this hasn't stopped the pundits from pushing a story about how Democrats should be worried because of all the "protest votes" cast on their side. Biden is getting pushback from younger and more progressive voters on his backing of Israel in the Gaza war, as well as Democrats who are just not all that enthused about him running again. But there haven't been a lot of stories exploring the protest votes being cast on the Republican side, which is odd because there were actually more of them this week than on the Democratic side.

A few caveats are necessary before we dive into these numbers, however. Biden isn't facing any serious challengers (Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson just don't rise to that level, sorry), while Trump did face two who at least made it to the first GOP primaries (Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley). DeSantis bailed early, after his disappointing finish in Iowa, but Haley stuck in there longer -- which means that in some of the states that voted this Tuesday she was still running when their early voting started. So it'll be interesting to see if the size of Haley's support stays the same or declines in the next few contests, where all the voting will have happened after she withdrew from the race. Her name will still be on the ballot even with her withdrawal, so it'll be interesting to see how many votes she gets.

Caveats aside, though, if either one of these candidates should truly be worrying about the depth of their support among their base voters, maybe it should be Trump and not Biden. Let's take a look at last night's results to see what I mean. There were Republican primaries in five states (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Ohio) while there were only four Democratic primaries (Florida Democrats decided not to even bother holding a primary). Here are Biden's numbers, expressed as a percentage of the total number of votes in the Democratic primaries (listed from best to worst):

Biden percentages

91.3 -- Illinois

89.5 -- Arizona

87.1 -- Ohio

83.8 -- Kansas

This means that anywhere from 8.7 percent (Illinois) to 16.2 percent (Kansas) of people who voted in the Democratic primaries did not cast their ballot for Biden. If you average it out, you get 87.9 percent for Biden with 12.1 percent against. That's a little less than one out of every eight people who made the effort to vote in their state's Democratic primary refusing to vote for Joe Biden.

Now let's look at Trump's results. Again, from best to worst, here are Trump's percentages of the Republican primary votes:

Trump percentages

81.2 -- Florida

80.7 -- Illinois

79.2 -- Ohio

77.9 -- Arizona

75.5 -- Kansas

That's a lot worse than Biden, as you can see. Anywhere from 18.8 percent (Florida) to a whopping 24.5 percent (Kansas) of GOP primary voters voted against Trump. It averages out to Trump getting just 78.9 percent while 21.1 percent voted against him. That is more than one in five GOP voters refusing to vote for Trump. Trump struggled to do much better than that even in his own home state. In his worst state, it was almost one in four Republican primary voters rejecting him.

It's pretty obvious, looking at the two sets of numbers side by side, that Trump seems to have a bigger problem than Biden. Biden's worst showing (83.8 percent) was better than Trump's best showing (81.2 percent). On average, Biden is winning a full nine percentage points more than Trump.

What does it all mean, if anything? Well, your guess is as good as mine, at this point. But it does seem like more detailed analysis is warranted, especially since the pundits don't really have anything better to talk about as primary season continues. It'd be interesting to see a breakdown of these protest votes divided by states where anyone can vote in any party's primary versus closed primaries where only registered voters of each party get to participate. This would show whether there's any crossover voting happening (for example: Democratic voters bored with their race crossing over to vote for Nikki Haley, just to embarrass Trump).

The real question is probably unanswerable (at least at this point): how many of those protest votes are going to translate into voters who refuse to show up in November to vote for their party's nominee? Well, that depends on a lot of things. People's opinions change. Supporters of a failed candidate can feel awfully disappointed at this stage, but a lot of them will return to the party fold come November. Even asking people in exit polling whether they'll eventually support their party's nominee isn't a great indicator of this, because as I said, opinions change over time. And even if we could know how many Republican and Democratic voters aren't going to support Trump and Biden in November, it wouldn't answer the question of what they'll do instead -- stay home, cast another protest vote (like Republicans who write in "Ronald Reagan" in November, for instance), or vote for a third-party candidate. That last option could wind up being the most important.

But even if the questions can't be clearly answered right now, it'd be a lot more interesting to hear polling on them and pundits talking about the possibilities. They've already spilled plenty of ink discussing Biden's weakness among Democrats, so perhaps it is time to look into Trump's own "enthusiasm gap" among Republicans? Just a suggestion....

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Reading The Primary Tea Leaves”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    One thing that gives me hope is that nobody really fears Biden, while quite a few people are scared of Trump returning. Perhaps that intensity gap will translate into better turnout on the democratic side than the polls are predicting.

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    Too bad there aren't any other offices besides president in the US political system -- at least as far as the media can see, or most of the voters who actually decide the outcomes of elections

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