Obama-Clinton Fuel Record Primary Turnout, But Will Enthusiasm Last?

Democratic voters have smashed primary turnout records in more than 20 states, and Republicans have set new marks in nine states. Yet campaign experts do not expect voter enthusiasm to keep up that pace through the November election.

In fact, most people who study elections do not believe this fall's showdown between Republicans and Democrats will even equal the turnout of four years ago, when 55.3 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

Nevertheless, the tidal wave of voter participation in this year's primaries — and the strong participation of certain groups — could reshape national politics for years to come.

Youth Turnout Reshapes Politics

One person who believes this year's primaries are reshaping politics is James Thurber of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

"You have to go back to 1960 when John F. Kennedy ran" to see a comparable political shift, Thurber told ABC News.

Kennedy's appeal to young voters, as well as a tight race against Republican Richard Nixon, produced a modern record for voter turnout, with 62.7 percent of eligible voters going to the polls.

"Kennedy was an example of a generational shift" in peoples' attitudes toward politics, with his emphasis on "ask what you can do for your country," Thurber said. "He produced a whole new generation [of voters] and they are still around in the Democratic Party."

Thurber contends that, like JFK, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has had success in mobilizing young people ages 18 to 30. And Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is likewise energizing women and Latinos to get out and vote.

It's the Issues

Thurber says that it's not just the candidates who are energizing voters. The enthusiasm for this year's elections is being fueled by the issues of the day.

"When you have a war that is unpopular and you have an economy that is going down, it really turns people on," Thurber said.

The record-shattering turnouts in the 2008 primaries mark a sharp upturn from previous elections.

Then-President Bill Clinton's landslide over Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., in 1996 happened with only 49.1 percent of eligible voters participating.

Four years later, then-Gov. George Bush versus Vice President Al Gore produced a 51.3 percent turnout rate. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry's, D-Mass., challenge of Bush raised the turnout rate to 55.3 percent, the highest level since 1964, when 61.9 percent of Americans voted.

Record Turnout in November?

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, does not believe any November voting records will be threatened this year.

"I don't know whether it's a surge that will carry through to the general election," Gans said.

Without Bush in the mix, he said, the November turnout will be less than it was four years ago.

The early voter interest has been so high, he says, because there is no incumbent running and because of the "unique candidacies of the first woman and the first black" to be in serious contention for the White House.

But no matter which Democrat wins the nomination, the party's turnout is likely to decline in the fall, Gans said.

"The youth turnout is Obama-specific," he said. "If he's not the nominee, they won't turn out."

An Obama loss would also disappoint black voters and likely reduce their vote, he said.

Clinton has drawn more white women and Latinos to the polls, and their enthusiasm will fall off if she's not the Democratic nominee, Gans argues.

Republican Challenge

On the Republican side, Gans says, conservatives and evangelicals are unlikely to be as determined to vote for the more moderate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., than they were for Bush.

What might help GOP turnout, he said, is a Clinton candidacy, because there is an element in the Republican Party that loves to vote against a Clinton.

None of those scenarios, Gans says, are likely to produce a turnout to match the 2004 numbers.

Follow the Money

This year's campaigns have also shattered records for the amount of money being raised and for the number of people donating to campaigns.

Yet Massie Ritsch is not about to declare a new era in voter involvement with political campaigns.

The number of people who give over $200 "is less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population," said Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations.

If you include all donors, including those who gave less than $200, "It's still no more than 4 percent, so the percentage of Americans who vote with their wallets is still very, very small," Ritsch said.

Thurber, however, believes the voters' enthusiasm will be sustained through the end of the election.

"Competition brings people out and it will be competitive in November," said Thurber. "It was so high four years ago that it will be hard to surpass it. But it will be equal."