Will Voter Turnout Continue to Swell?

The 2008 presidential nominating contest has brought record numbers of voters to state primaries and caucuses. Political analyst Rhodes Cook talks about the historical significance of the turnout.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The 2008 presidential nominating contest has seen voters turn out in record numbers.

Rhodes Cook, political analyst for the Center for Politics at University of Virginia joins us in the studio. Two of his recent pieces that he's written for the Crystal Ball - the Center's online publication about voter turnout. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RHODES COOK (Political Analyst, Center for Politics, University of Virginia): Welcome.

SIMON: And how does this turnout compare to other elections?

Mr. COOK: Well, it's off the charts for the Democrats. Already roughly 23 million people have voted in the Democratic primaries, which in itself is almost a record for a complete primary year. The Republicans are not doing bad either. They've had a turnout of about 15 million thus far for their primaries, and that is the second-highest turnout that they've ever had. The largest being 17 million back in 2000 when George W. Bush and John McCain faced off. And there are another month or two of voting to go here before we run out of big states, and the Republicans could break their record as well.

SIMON: Now, does that have to do with the fact that there are more primaries happening earlier in big states?

Mr. COOK: I think you got it, Scott. I think that's one of the big reasons. One is the excitement, particularly, on the Democratic side, much of it engendered by Barack Obama. But the other is that so many states, including a number of big states have voted earlier than ever and have had a voice in the nominating process for the first time in years.

SIMON: What are some of the factors you've been able to determine over the years that stimulate a high voter turnout?

Mr. COOK: Generally, interesting personalities, people who enlist passion within the ranks, and when you have the various wings of the party well represented. As was the case back in 1988 for the Democrats when you had Dukakis, more of the center, Jesse Jackson more to the left, Al Gore more to -the southern candidate and more of a moderate right candidate back then, and Richard Gephardt, a labor candidate.

And that was the previous record high year for the Democrats turnout-wise, was back in 1988. And you had basically all the wings of the party represented. But the other reason, and going back to what we were talking about a moment ago, is the fact there are so many early primaries by so many big states that actually had meaning this time. They weren't just a rubber stamp.

SIMON: I gather for reasons I hope you will explain that Republican turnout is historically lower than Democratic turnout anyway.

Mr. COOK: That's right. I think there are two reasons for that. One of them is that if you look at party registration totals from around the country and the states that have it. Not all states have it. It's probably about 30 states, and there are still more people who register as Democrats than register as Republicans. The rough percentages are, like, 40 percent Democratic; 33 percent Republican; and the rest Independent, 20 some percent.

And even though the Democratic percentage has been going down in recent years, Republican percentage has not been growing. It's the Independent share that has been growing in recent - but that's a story in itself. But what it all means is there's still a residual Democratic advantage at the party registration level. And that bears out in the primaries. The other thing is that the Democrats usually have the more exciting nominating contest. The wings of the party are more engaged. That does not lead to...

SIMON: And engage, you mean, when you say engage, you mean like battleships on the sea, engaged?

Mr. COOK: I mean, exactly, like friction. So a high turnout is not always a good thing, you know, for the Democrats in a primary season.

SIMON: Does it happen that people who get all energized about participating in a primary are not that motivated to vote in the general election, perhaps, because their side lost?

Mr. COOK: That's very true. There is a positive high turnout and there can be a negative high turnout. Positive is when you get all that enthusiasm and all the votes that were thrown into the primary season, and you're able to carry them over into the fall.

SIMON: Kiss and make up.

Mr. COOK: Kiss and make up. The other is when there's a high degree of friction between the two sides and it ends badly. And we don't know how this Democratic contest is going to end yet so we can't really say whether this is a high turnout good or high turnout bad.

SIMON: Well, Rhodes Cook, political analyst, and publisher, and editor of "The Rhodes Cook Letter." Thank you.

Mr. COOK: You're welcome.

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