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Why High GOP Primary Turnout Might Not Give the Party an Advantage

Republican primary voters turned out in higher numbers than Democrats in eight key battleground states —leading Donald Trump to boast that Republicans have a general-election advantage over Democrats.

An NBC News Data Analytics Lab analysis of 2016 primary voters reveals, however, that this is not the case. That’s because Democrats actually attracted more new voters during the presidential primaries.

Trump secured more than 13 million votes during the primary cycle this year — more than any other Republican candidate in recent history. This achievement led Trump to claim that he brought a significant number of new voters into the political process—thereby expanding the GOP and increasing the party’s odds in November.

To determine how many voters actually turned out for the first time during the 2016 primaries, the NBC News Data Analytics Lab independently analyzed voter file data provided by TargetSmart. We specifically focused our attention on eight battleground states that will be critical for determining the outcome of the general election in November — Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.*

In these eight states alone, nearly 11 million voters cast ballots in Republican primaries (10,998,813) compared to nearly 8.8 million voters (8,796,954) participated in Democratic primaries.

Most of the voters in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in these battleground states had participated in an election before. Nearly two-thirds of Republican and Democratic voters participated in both a previous primary and general election, and a quarter of both Republican and Democratic primary voters had only voted in general elections prior to the 2016 primary contests.

While more Republicans voted than Democrats, there were actually more new voters in the Democratic primaries than Republican primaries -- 836,219 new Democratic voters to 790,088 new Republican voters. Trump may have brought new Republican voters into the fold, but not as many as participated in the Democratic primaries.

The new Republican and Democratic voters also look very different from each other. On the Democratic side, 63 percent of new voters were under the age of 35, compared to only 46 percent on the Republican side. On the flip side, there were more new older Republican voters than new older Democratic voters.

The demographic difference has both short- and long-term ramifications. In the short term, Clinton faces the question of whether these new, young Democratic voters will turn out in November. Turnout among younger voters is historically lower than that of older voters, and this may be especially true if these younger voters were energized by the presence of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary—who is obviously no longer on the ballot. Longer term, the pattern of new voters raises questions about generational replacement. If the Democrats are bringing in larger numbers of young voters, the difference could bode well for future electoral prospects.

There was also a gender gap in the Democratic and Republican primaries. On the Democratic side, women accounted for 56 percent of new voters; on the Republican side, women accounted for 47 percent of new Republican voters.

Both parties had spirited and lengthy primaries in 2016. At the end of the day, however, only around 10 percent of the voters in either primary were new to the political process despite the presence and prominence of “outsider” candidates and their claims that their candidacies represented a “political revolution.” While it is true that more Republicans participated in the primaries than Democrats, there were actually more new Democratic voters than new Republican voters in key battleground states. Ultimately, it’s clear that there was not a large wave of new voters brought into the political process as a result of the most recent presidential primaries.

*Of the thirteen 2016 battleground states designated by the NBC News Political Unit, 10 held primaries (vote history is unavailable for states holding caucuses), one state had not yet provided 2016 primary vote history information (Arizona), and one state does not provide adequate partisanship data for analysis (Wisconsin). New Hampshire was excluded from the breakouts of new voters by age and gender because the file does not yet contain sufficient information on new voters.

For methodology and a full explanation of new voter analysis, click here.