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Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline

October 2004


This study examines the decline in voter turnout between primary and primary runoff elections for all federal elections between 1994 and 2004 in which a runoff took place. Data was collected on votes received by the winning candidate and total party votes cast in both rounds of partisan runoffs for the United States Senate and House of Representatives. The data was then analyzed based on race, gender, party affiliation, and the office sought to see if voter turnout varies under certain conditions. Further analysis was completed on runoff comebacks (elections in which the runoff winner had trailed after the first round primary) and incumbency.
Information on the 2004 general election results will be added to the study in November.  

Summary of Results

  • Voter turnout declined in 94 of 96 races in this study
  • 35.80% aggregate turnout decline for all runoff elections
  • Average turnout decline per primary race:
         - 38.93% in 2004
         - 30.20% in 2002
         - 47.96% in 2000
         - 31.62% in 1998
         - 35.56% in 1996
         - 28.10% in 1994
  • Turnout decline and office sought:
         - 37.71% average for 17 total Senate races
         - 33.50% average for 79 total House races
  • Turnout decline and partisan races:
         - 32.88% average for 47 total Democratic primaries/runoffs 
         - 35.55% average for 49 total Republican primaries/runoffs
  • Turnout decline, gender, and race:
         - 39.50% average for runoffs with female candidates
         - 31.44% average for runoffs with candidates of color
         - However, these results may not be significant because of the 
            small sample size (14 candidates of color and 9 female 
  • Runoff comebacks:
         - 33.33% of candidates won the runoff after trailing in the
         - 5 out of fourteen candidates of color came back to win the
            runoff after trailing in the primary
         - Of the nine female candidates who won a runoff, two had 
            trailed after the first round. 
  • This chart shows turnout decline based on these various factors.
  • Note on incumbency:
         - 85.71% (30 of 35) of the general election winners in this
            study are still in office as of October 2004.
         - The five who are no longer in Congress:
              - Bob Riley; retired in 2002; now Governor of Alabama.
              - Joe Scarborough; retired in 2001; now MSNBC host.
              - Mark Sanford; retired in 2000; now Governor of South
              - Ken Bentsen; did not run for reelection in 2002;
                 unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate.
              - J.C. Watts; retired in 2002
    ***None were defeated in a reelection bid as an incumbent***
  • See the MS Excel Spreadsheet for further detail 


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Copyright �� 2003     The Center for Voting and Democracy
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