Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Making sense of Minnesota’s primary election voter turnout numbers

Depending on who’s talking, the voting numbers from Minnesota’s Aug. 12 primary signaled a “record turnout or a troubling trend. Or both. 

GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson casting his vote in Plymouth on Tuesday morning.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

Political pundits and operatives were quick to dive in and start analyzing Minnesota’s Tuesday primary turnout numbers, which hit about 401,000 votes, accounting for about 12.8 percent of the 3.1 million people old enough and registered to vote in Minnesota. 

Article continues after advertisement

Final results will be certified by the Secretary of State in the coming days, but the early stats show a considerable drop from the last midterm August primary election in 2010, when nearly 16 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls. Before a 2010 law change, Minnesotans voted in the primary in September. 

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey was quick to put positive spin on the numbers, citing increased turnout for Republicans from the 2010 election.

In the four-way competitive Republican governor’s race this year, about 184,000 people showed up to vote. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson was the victor in that contest with just 55,834 votes. Technically, Downey is right. In 2010, the first year Minnesotans voted in an August primary, only 130,408 voters showed up to vote in the Republican gubernatorial primary. The 2010 competition is actually a high watermark for voter turnout for Republicans over the last few election cycles: 

  • 2006 (governor): 166,000
  • 2008 (U.S. Senate): 143,000
  • 2010 (governor): 130,000
  • 2012 (U.S. Senate): 124,000 
  • 2014 (governor): 184,000

“Turnout on Tuesday for the GOP primary beat the previous high turnout since the August primary was instituted by 40 percent,” Downey wrote in an email to activists Thursday. “We anticipated average turnout, but the contested primaries obviously brought people out to vote. All of the campaigns worked hard to get their supporters to the polls, and since the August primary was instituted, this year is actually a record high turnout for Republicans.” 

But Downey left something out — this cycle is the first time in two decades that Republicans have had a seriously competitive primary for statewide office. Before this year, Republican-endorsed candidates generally moved on to a primary without a serious challenge.

And despite the competitiveness in the GOP governor’s race, fewer people showed up to vote in that contest than in the non-competitive DFL governor primary, in which incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton faced no serious challenge. Approximately 191,000 showed up to vote in the DFL governor’s race. The U.S. Senate contest on the DFL side saw a similar result: 193,000 votes were cast in that contest, even though DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken faced no real challenge. In the Republican U.S. Senate race, approximately 180,000 voters showed up and sent businessman Mike McFadden to the November ballot. He faced four challengers, including state Rep. Jim Abeler.

For some, low Republican primary turnout makes sense. Historically, DFLers have had more competitive primaries, so it’s more ingrained in the typical Democratic voter in the state to get out to the polls in August (or September, previously).

Routinely, Democrats have better turnout in the primary,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said.

Republican and DFL primary voters, 2006–2014
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

What’s more, the four Republican campaigns for governor were quieter than the usual contested primary campaign. In contrast, a DFL primary contest between incumbent State Auditor Rebecca Otto and challenger Matt Entenza this year saw a litany of mailers and television ads across the state in the final weeks of the campaign. “There were relatively few ads in the mass media [for the Republican governor’s race],” Schier said. “It was highly targeted by all four of the candidates and there was no real scandal or conflict to speak of.”

But the fact that four Republicans desperately seeking the nomination still couldn’t turnout their supporters is concerning for some. Blogger and former Republican Party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb noted that the lack of enthusiasm on the GOP side is a trend that has continued since February, when more Democrats showed up for precinct caucuses than Republicans. Turnout was also lower than expected at the Republican Party’s convention in May.

David Sturrock, a former treasurer of the Republican Party of Minnesota and current a political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, said national polls show slightly more enthusiasm this election cycle from Republicans. But in Minnesota, he notes, he’s seeing a lack of excitement from both sides.

“In Minnesota, we don't always behave in ways that match national patterns,” he said. “They now have 12 weeks to improve on that, but right now, both voting blocs are not very fired up in Minnesota.”

Even Democrats’ numbers are down. In 2010, about 440,000 Democrats went to the polls for a competitive, three-way governor’s race. Dayton alone won 182,738 votes in that contest, nearly as many ballots as were cast for the entire field this year.

DFL turnout in the 2008 primary hit about 251,000 for the Senate race. In 2006, about 318,000 people showed up to cast their ballot in the U.S. Senate race that sent Amy Klobuchar to the November ballot, and about 316,000 voted in the governor primary that year.

While neither Dayton or Franken faced serious challenges this year, DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin still expressed concern about the low turnout numbers.

“Yesterday’s results in terms of turnout were not a good thing,” Martin said in a post-primary press conference on Wednesday. “In terms of democracy, it’s not a good thing when you have just the hard core partisans who show up.” 

Increasing voter enthusiasm is one of the DFL Party’s big challenges this year, and the party has already invested heavily in field staff across the state.

The low numbers have also renewed bipartisan calls to move the primary up to June. That way Minnesotans can vote before summer vacations start in earnest and just after the legislative session ends, when people are most engaged in local politics, advocates say. It would also give the general election campaigns a very early start.

Jennifer DeJournett, president of the Minnesota chapter of VOICES of Conservative Women, favors a June primary. She made thousands of phone calls for their endorsed candidates ahead of election day, and many voters didn’t even know there was a primary coming up. 

“When I’m not busy with politics, I’m just a regular suburban soccer mom, and it’s two weeks before school starts. Parents are busy getting everything ready and going back-to-school shopping, or people are enjoying the last little bit of summer left in Minnesota,” she said.

DeJournett is not worried about people showing up for the general election, when Minnesota typically hits nationwide records for voter turnout. “People just know to vote in November,” she said. 

-- Cyndy Brucato contributed reporting to this story