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Why Republicans Might Not Get A Voter Turnout Surge in Kentucky Next Year

Alix Mattingly

As members of the Republican Party of Kentucky debated on Saturday whether to approve a rule change creating a presidential caucus in March — at Sen. Rand Paul’s request — one of the biggest selling points was that the caucus would help build the party.

“I am thoroughly convinced that were I not in this race, that this is just good for the Republican Party, that we will grow our lists and excite people and get more people to turn out,” Paul told reporters following the vote in Frankfort.

In fact, most Republicans who rose in defense of holding a separate caucus in March for the presidential race said the excitement of the events will increase Republican voter turnout.

Election experts disagree.

Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida who focuses on elections, said Kentucky Republicans would likely be disappointed.

“Generally, the turnout out is not very high in these caucuses,” Smith said. “These are not just coming in and casting a vote and being out in 15 minutes. These are long deliberations.”

According to a 2009 Harvard Kennedy School study conducted by Thomas E. Patterson, participation in caucus states was far lower in the 2008 election than in primary states.

Patterson wrote that caucuses are also much less representative because they're usually held in the evening and require a bigger time commitment than primaries.

“Caucuses favor people who feel intensely about a candidate or have flexible time," Patterson wrote. "Parents with young children or people who work in the evenings are among those who find it difficult to participate in a caucus.

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“CNN exit polls in Iowa and Nevada (the only two caucus states where such polls were conducted) indicate that residents in the 30-44 age bracket, which are those who are most likely to have young children, were greatly underrepresented among the participants,” the study found. “Although they account for more than a fourth of the adult population in the two states, they accounted for less than a fifth of the caucus participants.”

Since the 1980s, voter participation in the U.S. has risen mostly because states were switching from caucuses to primaries, according to the Harvard study. It said about 13 million Americans cast nominating ballots in 1968, compared with 30 million in 1980. The study said during that time, about 20 states switched from a caucus to primary. The party primaries attracted 15 times as many participants as caucuses.

Unlike a primary, where voters go to a polling place, a caucus would be conducted at private events throughout the state run by county GOP party chairs. Some party officials have also expressed concerns about the logistics of conducting their first-ever caucuses.

A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky did not respond to a request for comment.

Smith said the caucus also means Kentucky Republicans should expect to see lower turnout in the May primary. The presidency would not be on that ballot for Republicans, but voters will choose nominees for the state legislature and Congress.

The switch from a primary to a caucus was drive by Paul's desire to simultaneously run for president and for re-election to the Senate.

“It’s going to probably dampen turnout for the primary later in the spring because you are taking out the national focus and attention of the presidential race,” Smith said.

He said voter fatigue would also be a factor.

“Voters will say, ‘Didn’t we already vote? Didn’t we already come out to the caucus? Why are we doing this again?’” Smith said.