By Sarah Dutton
Each election season there is speculation about whether new voters will turn out and which candidate will motivate them to do so. New voters can contribute to a candidate’s bloc of voter support, and turning out first-time voters is often a sign that a candidate is generating enthusiasm. And while it may not guarantee becoming the party’s nominee, energizing first-time voters can provide a compelling campaign narrative for a candidate heading into and during the caucuses and primaries.
During past Democratic caucuses and primaries, entrance and exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed both Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 were able to energize and motivate voters who were attending a caucus or voting in a primary for the first time.
In 2016, Sanders was best able to mobilize the support of newer voters. First-time caucus attendees accounted for 44% of Iowa Democrats in their caucuses, and Sanders won those voters handily (although Hillary Clinton won the caucuses overall).
In 2008, Obama was especially able to energize and turn out this group; a 57% majority of Iowa Democratic caucus goers said they were attending their first caucus, and Obama won the caucuses that year. It is worth noting that Obama’s Iowa win in 2008 may have contributed to a shift in the Democratic race. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Clinton was ahead in just about every national poll that asked about the Democratic nominating contest. Later in January, after Iowa and New Hampshire held their contests, Obama began to lead Clinton in some national polls, perhaps because Democratic primary voters perceived him as more electable after his Iowa win.
Turning to New Hampshire, in the past two Democratic primaries the Edison Research exit polls show fewer new voters compared to Iowa – less than one in five voters there were voting in a primary for the first time. But Sanders won them by a large margin in 2016, and Obama won a 47% plurality of them in 2008.
Why were these new voters energized to turn out? The 2016 Iowa caucus entrance poll provides evidence of new voters’ connection with Sanders. They were twice as likely as more seasoned attendees to say that only Bernie Sanders represented their values, and less likely to identify with the values of Hillary Clinton.
In the 2016 New Hampshire exit polls, Sanders’ support from new voters shows more clearly that many of these voters were motivated by support for him specifically. New Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire were more likely than those who had voted previously to say they were in tune only with Sanders’ values – 51% did so.
While nearly nine in ten new Democratic voters in New Hampshire said they would be satisfied if Sanders won the nomination, a majority also said they would not be satisfied if Clinton won. By comparison, majorities of those who had voted before said they would be happy with each candidate as the nominee. (Overall, 62% of New Hampshire voters said they would be satisfied with Clinton as the nominee, and 79% said the same for Sanders.)
In 2016, Bernie Sanders went on to win first-time caucus/primary voters in the next set of nominating contests after Iowa and New Hampshire as well – a clear demonstration that he had energized a newer, younger bloc of voters to come out and participate in the nominating process. In the Nevada Democratic caucuses, entrance polls show that fully 62% of caucus-goers were attending for the first time, and Sanders won them 53% to 44%. And while a much smaller 13% of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were new voters, Sanders won them as well, 63% to 37%, according to the exit poll. Of course, despite this support Sanders did not become the Democratic nominee that year.
So, which candidate will generate enthusiasm among these newer attendees and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire this year? Will Sanders replicate his 2016 success? Will first-timers be a determining factor in which candidate becomes the eventual nominee? These are among the key stories to watch for next month as the 2020 Democratic nominating contests get under way.