Do Primary Voters Represent The General Public? It's Actually Really Hard To Tell

A voter casts her ballot for the Michigan presidential primary at a polling station in Warren, Michigan, March 8, 2016. US voters cast ballots in White House primaries in Michigan and Mississippi Tuesday, with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton favored to win their parties' latest tests of strength. / AFP / Geoff Robins (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party establishment — and no doubt, countless citizens across the political spectrum — are reeling as the increasingly likely scenario became almost certain: Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. And things are rough on the Democratic side of the race as well, with Sec. Hillary Clinton's nomination becoming more likely, and Sen. Bernie Sanders' supporters raging against the Democratic National Committee. Lots of people aren't happy about how the primaries are panning out. With anger and frustration toward the primary process being so prominent, I began to wonder: How well do primary voters represent the general electorate?

We do know that turnout has been relatively high, especially on the Republican side. About 30 percent of the voting-eligible population turned out thus far, but is this 30 percent consistent ideologically and demographically with the rest of the country? Not necessarily. First, we don't have much reliable data to work with for the 2016 primaries concerning demographics and ideological leanings of those who turned out, considering that the primaries are still going, and only some states have conducted exit polling (which, by the way, tend to have small sample sizes not necessarily representative of overall turnout).

A look at historical trends for primary turnout, as reported by the United States Elections Project, in conjunction with 2016's exit polls, suggests at least one demographic pattern being followed. Young people 17-35 make up the age bracket with the lowest turnout, with voters over 45 outnumbering those under 45. This is particularly significant, seeing that the millennial generation is now the most populous, Pew reported. As usual, young people have been underrepresented during the primaries.

Another thing to look at is the impact closed primaries have had on independents' ability to participate in the primary process. This demographic becomes very significant when we consider that an estimated 42 percent of Americans identify as independent, according to Gallup. A Pew study from 2014 with a similar total (39 percent) gives us a demographic breakdown of the group; millennials are by far more likely to identify as independent, with about half identifying as such.

Half the states hold closed primaries for Democratic candidates, and 28 for Republicans. If people registered as independent failed to officially change their affiliation by the dates set by these states, then they were not able to vote in the primaries.

So we have potentially large numbers of young people and independents who didn't vote in the primaries. What might this mean for our question concerning how well the primary voters represent the general electorate — or to slightly reframe the question, how well the primary results reflect the will of the general population?

At first glance, part of this seems easy to answer. If more young people voted, Sanders would be doing better, right? (Young people consistently favor Sanders strongly over Clinton in exit polls, and make up a relatively small portion of Republican voters.) Here's the problem with that conclusion. Exit polls poll voters, not people who decide for whatever reason to abstain. Also, many opinion polls conducted are of "likely voters," so even if Sanders does well in those, it doesn't tell us how the disaffected would choose should they show up. But given young people's general trend toward the left ideologically, we might assume they'd side with Sanders.

Exit polls also show that independents who vote in Democratic primaries favor Sanders. So if a good chunk of those wanted to but were unable to vote in closed primaries, we might conclude that he'd have done better in those. The problem with that conclusion: Sanders has won the same number of closed as open primaries (eight each); Clinton has won only one more closed primary than open (12 versus 11). So we really don't know.

What about on the right? More young voters probably wouldn't affect things much, given young people's tendency to lean left. But what about the independents? Trump won 11 open and 12 closed primaries, Ballotpedia reported. Cruz won only two open contests and eight closed. That suggests having independents participate in primaries gives Trump an advantage.

But we also have to keep in mind that only about 40 percent of Republican primary voters have voted for Trump. He was able to be the clear frontrunner for two reasons: 1) several other candidates in the field have been divvying up delegates between them since the beginning of the race; and 2) many states allocate their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, meaning Trump got massive delegate dumps from states where he didn't really win that big.

There is more uncertainty than certainty pertaining to the question of whether primary voters represent the general public well, and whether the results of primaries closely align with the will of the people. On Donald Trump's first day as the presumptive Republican nominee, we at least have some reason to believe that most Americans aren't down with him.

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