An institutional analysis of voter turnout: the role of primary type and the expressive and instrumental voting hypotheses


Recent events highlight primary type as an institutional variable that merits further examination in the economics literature on voter turnout. Using panel data for U.S. gubernatorial elections and treating primary type as a proxy for candidate deviation from the median voter, we test whether primary type changes voter turnout and whether that change is dominated by instrumental or expressive voting. The results show that states with more open primaries tend to have greater voter turnout in general elections, and that this increase reflects the effect of open primaries on expressive voting.

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  1. 1.

    One institutional effect that the turnout literature has focused on is voter registration. See the following papers for a discussion of the role of voter registration laws on voter turnout: Erikson (1981), Nagler (1991), Knack (1995), Franklin and Grier (1997), Oliver (1996), and Highton (1997).

  2. 2.

    We think our analysis extends the work of Kanthak and Morton (2003) who examine only three cross sectional congressional elections, the last one of which occurred prior to significant changes in state primary law. Our sample contains a potential 284 Democratic and Republican primaries (223 of which occurred). Republicans held 117 primaries while Democrats held 106.

  3. 3.

    Johnson (1991, p. 133) writes that “[o]ne of the most unwarranted assumptions in traditional democratic theory is that the voting franchise is valuable to the individual citizen.”

  4. 4.

    This cost-benefit equation originally appeared in Riker and Ordershook (1968). The version cited here is attributed to Matsusaka (1993, 1995).

  5. 5.

    See Aldrich (1993) for a relevant survey of this literature, and Rallings and Thasher (2007) for a recent analysis in support of the rational choice model of voting.

  6. 6.

    For a detailed analysis of expressive voting see Fiorina (1976), Brennan and Buchanan (1984), Brennan and Lomasky (1993), Copeland and Laband (2002), Greene and Nelson (2002), and Drinkwater and Jennings (2007).

  7. 7.

    The “nonpartisan” primary in Louisiana represents a special case of the blanket primary in which the party affiliation of the voter is also not relevant.

  8. 8.

    Calcagno and Westley (2005) also find evidence of primary types and candidate deviation by examining candidate spending in gubernatorial elections.

  9. 9.

    One main issue in examining primary types is strategic voting. See Cherry and Kroll (2003), Heckelman (2004). Cain and Gerber (2002) for a review of the effects of the change in the California primary system and strategic voting. Like Gerber and Morton (1998) and Grofman and Brunell (2001) we assume sincere voting on the part of the voting public.

  10. 10.

    Candidates in closed primaries start off more extreme, appealing to the median voters of their parties rather than the median voter of their constituency (Westley et al. 2004). It follows that they would move to the center for the general election, but as Burden (2001) points out, such a move may be costly. Thus, the candidates that result in the general election would be more divergent relative to other primary types. Brady et al. (2007) find similar results.

  11. 11.

    Much of the data pertaining to gubernatorial expenditures and election participation is obtained from the Gubernatorial Campaign Expenditure database compiled by Thad Beyle and Jennifer Jensen.

  12. 12.

    Endersby (2000) and Endersby et al. (2002) suggests that this calculation is among the most common for measuring turnout. Total votes relative to registered voters were used in earlier models, but did not perform well, most likely due to the greater variation in registered voters than voting age population.

  13. 13.

    Patterson (1982) notes that “[i]ncumbents in an election have an advantage over their challengers both because incumbent status may give them greater visibility to voters, and because the political resources at their command may allow them to conduct more extensive campaigns.”

  14. 14.

    This measure follows the literature on voting turnout (Matsusaka 1993) and is calculated as MARGIN = 100 × [(votes for − votes against)/(votes for + votes against)].

  15. 15.

    These states were Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Washington, and West Virginia. The passage of the NVRA superceded these states’ laws. A few states implemented motor voter legislation in 1994 in anticipation of the federal law.

  16. 16.

    One can argue that registering to vote is a sunk cost and may not affect the decision to vote. Matsusaka and Palda (1999) claim that the decision to vote may be more the result of idiosyncratic costs than consistent factors.

  17. 17.

    Tollison and Willet (1973) argue that income is highly correlated with education and age, and that therefore only one of these three socioeconomic variables needs to be included in econometric studies. However, all three variables have a history of use in the literature. We found INCOME and POP65 have a correlation coefficient of −.03, most likely due to the fact that after the age of 65 individuals income may begin to decline. COLLEGE and POP65 also have a small correlation coefficient of .11. INCOME and COLLEGE have a higher correlation as expected with a coefficient of .57. Since the correlation between INCOME and COLLEGE is the highest we estimated models with only INCOME or only COLLEGE. We find no significant changes in the model when only one of the variables is included and when both are included so we include all three variables.

  18. 18.

    Southern states consist of eleven states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Western states consist of twelve states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, and Washington. Primary types remain relatively constant over the time period in question, but nine states changed primary types over the period. All the changes were toward more restrictive primaries see Table 3.

  19. 19.

    A Hausman test statistic is required to determine whether fixed or random effects apply. The variance-covariance matrix necessary to compute this statistic could not be inverted. Kennedy (2003) points out that this is a practical problem that occurs in many cases when calculating the Hausman test statistics.

  20. 20.

    To help identify the true effects of motor voter (MOTOR) and closing registration date (REGDATE) along with primary type we create a series of interaction terms with MOTOR and REGDATE and each primary type to create eight additional explanatory variables. To avoid multicollinearity, each interaction term is added individually to test the robustness of the model. The MOTOR and the REGDATE interaction terms are not statistically significant in any of the models, which imply they are not dependent on the presence of primary type in the model. Since the interaction terms are not significant none of these models are presented here.

  21. 21.

    The overall trend in voter turnout could reflect the trend that closed and semiclosed primaries are the most common type of primary in the U.S. See footnote 18.


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The authors would like to thank John Matsusaka, Calvin Blackwell, Frank Hefner, Monica Escaleras, and Joe McGarity for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Peter T. Calcagno.

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Calcagno, P.T., Westley, C. An institutional analysis of voter turnout: the role of primary type and the expressive and instrumental voting hypotheses. Constit Polit Econ 19, 94–110 (2008).

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  • Voter turnout
  • Primary voting
  • Expressive voting
  • Instrumental voting

JEL Classification

  • D72
  • H11