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Does it matter that the Republican Presidential Primary and Amendment One are on the same day?

January 24, 2012

When you want to win an election, the first step is always to figure out how many people you’ll need to vote for you, and what you’ll do to make sure you hit that number.  This number is generally calculated using historical turnout data–how many votes do the winners in a given type of election in a given location (whether for senator, city council, or school board) usually receive?

Conventional wisdom says that the the fact that the vote on the Anti-Civil-Union Amendment (Amendment One) corresponds to Presidential Primary date (May 8th, although early voting starts on April 19th) is bad for those who want to make sure the discriminatory amendment isn’t passed.  “Obama is already the Democratic nominee–but Republicans will be excited to vote in the Presidential Primary!,” you might hear.  “This means that Republicans will be going to the polls disproportionately, and that Amendment One is likely to pass.”

Is this wisdom supported by data?

Let’s take a look at voter turnout in North Carolina presidential primaries since 1996.  If the race was still competitive come May (only in 2008 for the Democrats), that’s listed as a yes.  I’ve also noted if there was an incumbent president, or if a given candidate had already racked up enough delegates prior to May to be considered the presumptive nominee.

In 2004, because of issues over redistricting, North Carolina actually didn’t have a presidential primary, although both the Republican and Democratic nominees for President had already been decided by May.

Here are the most important things to gain from this data:

  1. By May, it is almost always the case that the nominee has been decided for both parties.  In 8 races (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 for Republicans and for Democrats), this was true 7/8 times.  In practice, it is likely that neither Democrats or Republicans will have a competitive presidential primary by the time May rolls around.
  2. If the presidential primary is competitive, voter turnout might be expected to roughly triple amongst Republicans–this would almost guarantee that the Anti-Civil-Union Amendment passes, unless pro-equality groups (like Duke Together and Protect NC Families) do a phenomenal job of get-out-the-vote.  There is a slim but nonzero chance that the Republican presidential primary will be competitive come May.  Coming out of Gingrich’s recent win in South Carolina, and his project win in Florida, the Republican primary is certainly not the open-and-shut case for Romney that some analysts might have predicted.
  3. When neither party has a competitive primary (even if one party has an incumbent president), Democratic turnout tends to be higher in the primary than Republican turnout.  This is not surprising, given the number of registered Democrats outnumbers registered Republicans by about 800,000 (2.7m vs. 1.9m).

What does this tell us?

If there were not a constitutional amendment on the ballot, it is likely that on May 8th, slightly more Democrats than Republicans would show up to the polls.  The fact that Amendment One is being voted on during a Republican Presidential Primary is by no means a deal-breaker, and is probably not even relevant, compared to what things would have been like in Amendment One were on the November ballot.

What don’t we know?

  1. How local primaries–including Congressional primaries, a governor’s primary, and primaries for municipal elections will influence voter turnout amongst both parties.  The 2010 NC Republican redistricting plan pits lots of Democratic incumbents against each other (this process is called double-bunking, and is intended to knock out incumbents from the other party), which means there will be a lot of races for Democrats to, unfortunately, get excited about–nobody likes to see two incumbents from their party have to go head-to-head.
  2. How efficacious advocacy groups will be on both sides in messaging about the amendment.  Public Policy Polling has found overwhelmingly that North Carolinians support civil unions–but that they also support Amendment One, meaning they don’t understand that Amendment One makes civil unions unconstitutional.

What you can do to help:

Defeating Amendment One– protecting LGBT families across the state of North Carolina, and asserting that our state isn’t interested in hate and discrimination–is a realistic but challenging goal.

Please reach out to one of these organizations to volunteer–even for an hour–between now and May:

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