Politics: Analysis | Time to start panicking? Democrats will get a sense tonight.

Aaron Blake

Democrats are increasingly jittery about the campaign to defeat President Trump. One reason is his improving poll numbers, which haven’t been hurt by impeachment and have actually hit new highs in some recent polls. Another big one that emerged a week ago was the unspectacular turnout in the Iowa caucuses.
On Tuesday night, they’ll get a better sense of how much panic is warranted.
The slow-coming results in Iowa have somewhat obscured the potentially troubling signs in Democrats’ turnout. The total of 176,000 people who voted was about on par with where it was in 2016, but it was far off the record set in 2008 (236,000) — by about 25 percent. What happened in 2008? The Democrats won. What happened in 2016? They lost.
That’s a broad oversimplification, of course, but it’s not completely without merit. Enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008 was historic. We found out in 2016 that enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton was severely lacking. Democrats have long professed to be happy with their options in 2020, but there has also been a healthy undercurrent — particularly in the party establishment — of uncertainty.
One oft-cited number in the latest Iowa results is the lack of first-time caucus-goers. While in 2008, there were more than 130,000 of them, according to entrance polls, in 2020 the number was about half that.
This one might be a little less telling than people think, though. The two Iowa Democratic caucuses with the highest turnout were in 2008 and in 2016. In those elections, 40 percent of registered Iowa Democrats and 29 percent of registered Iowa Democrats voted, respectively. And even as the latter year had lower turnout, 44 percent of voters still said they were voting in their first caucus. In other words, the pool of potential first-time caucus-goers for 2020 was significantly smaller, so perhaps it’s not a big surprise that the number of first-timers did too.
(By contrast, when the turnout record was set in 2008, overall turnout nearly doubled the previous record, set in 2004. With a previous record turnout of about 124,000, there were gobs more potential first-time voters available than there are today.)
Another potential mitigating factor when it comes to the low turnout in Iowa last week was impeachment. The Democratic presidential race wasn’t really huge news in the weeks before the caucuses, as the country was focused on President Trump’s Senate trial. Three of the leading contenders were largely stuck in Washington when they’d have rather been flying to Des Moines to rally supporters in person. That doesn’t mean the caucuses weren’t a big story in Iowa, but it was a factor that really has no precedent. Trump’s trial wasn’t even technically over and wouldn’t be for two more days. In some ways, it has felt like the 2020 campaign is starting more slowly.
So Tuesday night, we’ll get another data point. What should we expect and/or watch for?
The first thing to remember is that New Hampshire should have better turnout. One reason is that it’s a primary, in which voting is less of a time commitment and can be done throughout the day. Another is that it’s an open primary, in which anybody can cast ballots regardless of party registration. That should be particularly helpful in a year in which there’s really no contest to speak of on the Republican side.
And that’s been helpful in New Hampshire before. The 2004 election was the last time we had such a setup, and turnout in New Hampshire was significantly better that year, historically speaking, than in Iowa. While only a little more than half as many people voted in 2004 in Iowa vs. four years later in 2008, in New Hampshire it was more than 75 percent — about 220,000 in 2004 vs. more than 287,000 in 2008.
The 2016 election was also closer to the 2008 record in New Hampshire than in Iowa. In New Hampshire, only about 36,000 fewer voters turned out, compared with about 60,000 fewer in Iowa.
That’s a lot of numbers, but what it basically boils down to is this: Turnout in New Hampshire should be significantly closer to 2008 numbers than Iowa. The real question is how much closer — and whether it might even exceed it.
Which isn’t unreasonable to think. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner recently reduced his estimated turnout for Tuesday’s primary, but he still projected there would be 292,000 Democratic votes — slightly more than the record. If it does set a record, you can bet Democrats will be tempted to think their turnout issues in Iowa were a blip rather than something more serious.
But really, given there’s no other game in town in New Hampshire on Tuesday, equaling 2008 is probably more of a baseline than anything. If they slip below it — and below the projection of Gardner, who is a Democrat — it’ll be tough not to see this is a lingering problem.