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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 19, 2016

Sanders largely off-base in saying he wins when voter turnout is high and loses when it's low

On the eve of the New York Democratic primary -- where he needs a strong showing to have any hope of winning the presidential nomination contest -- Bernie Sanders has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a large turnout.

In an April 12 speech in Syracuse, Sanders told supporters, "A week from today there's going to be an enormously important Democratic primary in New York state. What we have found is we win when voter turnout is high, we lose when it is low. Next Tuesday, let us come out in large numbers. Let us have the highest voter turnout in Democratic primary history in New York."

We wondered whether it’s accurate for Sanders to say he’s won when turnout is high and lost when the turnout is low. We didn’t find a unified source that presents 2016 Democratic primary turnout rates on a state-by-state basis, so we created measurements that address two different ways of measuring turnout. (Political scientists we contacted said our approach was solid.)

The bottom line is that we found a few cases where Sanders won high turnout states, but overall, the case he makes is pretty thin.

Turnout rates in the 2016 primaries and caucuses

Let's start with the first way of measuring turnout: How many people voted in the 2016 primaries and caucuses compared with 2012.

To do this, we divided by the number of Democratic ballots cast in the 2016 primaries and caucuses by the number of votes Barack Obama received in the 2012 general election (a reasonable approximation of how many Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters there are in each state). The higher this percentage, the higher the turnout. (We used data from the U.S. Elections Project, run by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald, and NBC News.)

As the following chart shows, Sanders won the three highest-turnout contests, but also the 10 lowest-turnout contests. States won by Sanders are marked in bold.

State

Primary/caucus

Winner

Democratic ballots / Obama 2012 votes

Oklahoma

Primary

Sanders

75.87%

New Hampshire

Primary

Sanders

69.13%

Vermont

Primary

Sanders

67.88%

Illinois

Primary

Clinton

66.82%

Massachusetts

Primary

Clinton

64.18%

Wisconsin

Primary

Sanders

62.08%

Arkansas

Primary

Clinton

56.33%

North Carolina

Primary

Clinton

52.47%

Missouri

Primary

Clinton

51.53%

Alabama

Primary

Clinton

50.01%

Michigan

Primary

Sanders

47.06%

Ohio

Primary

Clinton

44.29%

South Carolina

Primary

Clinton

44.11%

Arizona

Primary

Clinton

43.95%

Texas

Primary

Clinton

43.59%

Georgia

Primary

Clinton

43.44%

Mississippi

Primary

Clinton

41.75%

Virginia

Primary

Clinton

41.20%

Florida

Primary

Clinton

40.36%

Tennessee

Primary

Clinton

38.96%

Louisiana

Primary

Clinton

38.56%

Utah

Caucus

Sanders

33.71%

Iowa

Caucus

Clinton

20.96%

Nevada

Caucus

Clinton

Featured Fact-check

15.88%

Washington state

Caucus

Sanders

14.19%

Minnesota

Caucus

Sanders

13.89%

Nebraska

Caucus

Sanders

11.57%

Maine

Caucus

Sanders

11.56%

Idaho

Caucus

Sanders

11.24%

Hawaii

Caucus

Sanders

11.12%

Colorado

Caucus

Sanders

10.97%

Alaska

Caucus

Sanders

10.38%

Wyoming

Caucus

Sanders

10.18%

Kansas

Caucus

Sanders

9.35%

 

So Sanders does have something of a point -- the top three slots are all states he won. Vermont is an outlier -- it’s Sanders’ home state -- but Oklahoma and New Hampshire are legitimate, high-turnout Sanders victories. Sanders won two other primary states with relatively high turnouts -- Michigan and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton took the rest.

But Sanders' point holds as long as you only consider primaries and ignore caucuses.

Remember those bottom 10 states that Sanders won? They were all caucuses, where the complicated process tends to keep voter turnout low. Ignoring the large number of low-turnout caucuses Sanders won would be cherry-picking.

Putting these low-turnout caucuses into the calculation quickly weakens the link between high-turnout contests and Sanders victories: The average turnout rate for a state won by Clinton was 44 percent, while the average state won by Sanders had a turnout rate of 31 percent.

Turnout change between 2008 and 2016

There's another way to define a high-turnout primary or caucus -- to see how much turnout grew in 2016 compared with the last contested Democratic primary year, 2008.

To do this, we compared the number of Democratic ballots cast in 2008 to the number cast in 2016, once again using U.S. Elections Project data.

The chart below shows how primary turnout grew (the positive values) or shrunk (the negative values) between 2008 and 2016. Once again, Sanders’ states are in bold:

State

Democratic turnout increase, 2008 to 2016

Michigan

+ 102.82%

Alaska

+ 22.96%

Idaho

+ 12.53%

Kansas

+ 7.85%

Maine

+ 2.98%

Colorado

+ 2.92%

Minnesota

+ 0.44%

Florida

- 2.33%

Massachusetts

- 3.44%

Illinois

- 4.40%

Wisconsin

- 10.04%

Arizona

- 10.43%

New Hampshire

- 11.74%

Vermont

- 12.89%

Nebraska

- 13.47%

Louisiana

- 18.88%

Oklahoma

- 19.50%

Wyoming

- 20.03%

Virginia

- 20.40%

Missouri

- 24.12%

Alabama

- 26.05%

Iowa

- 27.50%

North Carolina

- 27.69%

Georgia

- 27.85%

Nevada

- 28.55%

South Carolina

- 29.90%

Arkansas

- 30.02%

Tennessee

- 40.57%

Utah

- 41.14%

Mississippi

- 49.19%

Ohio

- 49.27%

Texas

- 50.06%

Washington state

- 66.73%

 

So, with this measurement too, states that Sanders won are clustered near the top of the list -- but once again, there are some important caveats.

For starters, the only primary state Sanders won that saw turnout growth this year was a real outlier, Michigan. Due to an intra-party dispute in 2008, Obama wasn’t on the ballot in Michigan eight years ago. As a result, it’s no surprise to see turnout more than double in 2016. And we’ll discount Minnesota, since its caucus participation figure for 2016 is an estimate, and was virtually the same numerically as 2008.

That leaves five states won by Sanders where turnout increased. But it’s worth keeping in mind that each was a caucus state, and the increases in turnout were extraordinarily small in the context of a primary season where millions of votes have been cast. Alaska was up 1,979, Idaho was up 2,660, Kansas was up 2,911, Maine was up 1,330, and Colorado was up 3,507.

In most states -- including most of those won by Sanders such as New Hampshire and Wisconsin -- turnout has actually fallen compared with the 2008 primaries, when Obama was running to become the first African-American president.

With Democratic turnout down almost everywhere compared with 2008, it’s a stretch for Sanders to tout his ability to win by drawing waves of additional voters to the polls.

In fact, Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, not only agreed with our conclusions but also also volunteered to run the math on how Sanders’ share of the vote has been influenced by three factors -- the percentage of African-American voters, whether the state was in the northern or southern United States, and turnout.

He found that race and region were powerful predictors of how well Sanders did -- and that turnout mattered very little.

Our ruling

Sanders said, "We win when voter turnout is high, we lose when it is low."

Sanders did notch a few notable victories in high-turnout primaries, but it would be cherry-picking to focus only on primaries. Sanders has mostly won caucuses, which have produced the lowest turnout rates of 2016 across the board. And while Sanders did win the handful of states where Democratic turnout increased over 2008, these increases were tiny, casting doubt on how significant an accomplishment this is.

The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.

https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/074dfd44-4244-447d-8cd3-371fb14bad33

Our Sources

Syracuse.com, "Bernie Sanders' plan to win New York: Get highest voter turnout in primary history," April 12, 2016

YouTube, Bernie Sanders speech at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, April 17, 2016

United States Elections Project, "2016 Presidential Nomination Contest Turnout Rates," accessed April 18, 2016

United States Elections Project, "2008 Presidential Nomination Contest Turnout Rates," accessed April 18, 2016

NBC News, "2012 presidential election results," accessed April 18, 2016

New York Times, "2016 Delegate Count and Primary Results," accessed April 18, 2016

Email interview with Seth Masket, University of Denver political scientist, April 18, 2016

Email interview with Alan Abramowitz, Emory University political scientist, April 18, 2016

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Sanders largely off-base in saying he wins when voter turnout is high and loses when it's low

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