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Turnout This Year Was High but 1972 Holds the Record

Much has been written about the high voter turnout in these year’s primaries, particularly on the Democratic side, but while 23 of 34 states reported record turnouts, the overall national turnout of 30.2 percent of the eligible electorate fell short of the 30.9 percent who voted in 1972, according to a study by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. The Center predicted a high turnout also for the general election but said whether it will be higher than the 61 percent who voted four years ago is still in doubt.

So, let’s take a trip down memory lane to 1972 when the Vietnam War caused a fierce divide among the Democrats and stoked that year’s turnout. That was the year the new procedures set by the commission led by George McGovern shifted the power to choose the nominee towards the primaries, and though McGovern actually got slightly fewer overall votes than Hubert Humphrey (25.34 percent to Humphrey’s 25.77 percent), he won the nomination. It was also the year that George Wallace entered the presidential fray and garnered 23.48 percent of the primary votes. Coming out of the disastrous (for them) 1968 elections, many Democrats had been looking towards Ted Kennedy as the next standard-bearer, but that hope was dashed by Chappaquiddick the next year. Edmund Muskie, who was Humphrey’s running mate in 1968, was the favorite going into the 1972 Democratic race, but after the (in)famous New Hampshire incident where the press reported Muskie had let some tears roll over criticism of his wife, that was that for another presumed frontunner.

The Center’s study says, “Turnout in this year’s general election will be driven by an extraordinarily discontented public” and noted that in the three elections since 1960 where turnout increased (the 1982 midterm, and the 1992 and 2004 presidential years), it was “largely driven by citizen insecurity about economies perceived to be in recession and, as noted above, the 2004 turnout surge was propelled by the polarizing policy and presidency of President Bush.”

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