Overestimating Voter Turnout in Iowa

Photo credit: Tom Arthur via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: Tom Arthur via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Donald Trump is banking on a “yuuuuge” turnout next Monday night. Some recent polls like Fox News and CNN are based on a large voter turnout in the realm of 300,000, which impacts polling results.

While this cycle has been unprecedented, there is nothing happening on the ground in Iowa that I’ve seen that would suggest numbers that high (even with large audiences at Donald Trump rallies).

I discussed some numbers over at Caffeinated Thoughts yesterday to help put things into perspective:

We had 162,633 people turn out for the 2014 Republican primary when we had a very competitive U.S. Senate race. To put this in perspective it was super easy to vote in this primary. You were able to vote absentee. You were able to vote early in satellite locations. Also you can vote and leave on the primary election day at any time.

That isn’t the case with a caucus where you go to your site at 7:00p listen to speeches from neighbors in support of their candidate and then vote.

Consider that the Republican turnout in 2008 was 119,200 which represented 20.69% of the Republican registration of 576,231 at the time. It was higher in 2012, we saw 121,503 caucus for Republicans which represented 19.76% of the Republican’s 614,913 registered voters at the time.

In 2012 exit polling showed 25% (2% Democrat, 23% independent) changed their party registration to caucus. In 2008 it was 13%. Democrats that year saw 20% of their voters were independents who registered as Democrats so they could caucus.

Right now there are 612,112 registered Republicans in Iowa. If we repeat 2008’s percentage we’re looking at a turnout of 126,646. Mind you the 2008 and 2012 percentages and turnout numbers also include the crossover vote. In 2012 there was not a competitive Democrat presidential race which explains the high crossover percentage seen in exit polling. 2008 when there were competitive races for both parties the crossover percentages was lower for Republicans. My feeling, especially now that it looks like Democrats have a competitive race, we’ll have a lower crossover and independents who register will be split between parties.

Even in 2012 when, according to exit polling, 27,945 independents registered as Republicans accounted for 23% of the Iowa Caucus vote that was just shy of 3.9% of registered independent voters at the time. To reach 300,000 in the Republican caucus it would need an extra ordinary turnout of those who are currently registered Republicans. 25.3% would land us 155,000 to come out to caucus. When you consider an average of 15.9% of registered voters voted in their state’s primary in 2012 that would be pretty remarkable. The highest recorded primary (not a caucus mind you) turnout for Republicans didn’t break 25% in 2012. If we had a repeat of 2012 with a turnout of independents reregistering as Republicans we’d still need 44% turnout of registered Republicans. IF we doubled the number of independents that changed their registration in 2012 we’d still need a 39.8% turnout of registered Republicans. For a little perspective bear in mind that states who had record high turnout in primaries only saw under 31% of their registered voters turnout for a primary when you can vote all day. Even with this scenario we would need almost 56,000 people to register as Republicans on caucus night.

I believe we’ll have a good turnout, but I think it’ll still be under 130,000 (which would still be a record). I could be wrong, but I’ve seen nothing that would suggest that I am.

Shane Vander Hart is the online communications manager for American Principles Project, a frequent contributor to TruthInAmericanEducation.com, and the editor of Iowa-based CaffeinatedThoughts.com.