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April 25, 2016

Will undecided presidential races boost voter turnout in Pennsylvania Primary?

The Democrats' contested race in 2008 between Obama and Clinton sparked the highest turnout since 1992

The primary races for the presidential nominations are as competitive as they ever have been at the time of the Pennsylvania primary election.

Historically, each party has determined its presidential nominee long before Pennsylvanian voters head to the polls. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are closing in the Republican and Democratic nominations, respectively, but their competitors are still forging ahead.

What impact will that have on voter turnout?

"We know, looking back at past elections, that turnout is lower than it is in the general election," said Patrick Christmas, policy program manager for the Committee of Seventy. "By the time you get to April, the primary usually is not that critical up here in Pennsylvania."

Among the past four presidential primaries, voter turnout has ranged between 19.8 percent and 23.8 percent with one exception. The 2008 primary, in which Clinton was still competing against Barack Obama, saw 42.7 percent of voters turn out. That marked the highest figure since 1992.

Will Pennsylvania witness a similar bump Tuesday, given that Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are all still actively engaged in the presidential race?

"It's tough to say," Christmas said. "I think I'd also add that I think every political pundit has been wrong at numerous points along the way. Who knows what it will look like tomorrow.

Still, those voter turnout figures pale in comparison to the general elections featuring presidential races. Over that same span, turnout has dipped below 50 percent only once – in 1996. It has hovered between 58 and 62 percent during the last three general elections.

Primaries tend to have lower turnout figures, in part, because they are more nuanced races than general election contests, Temple University political science professor Robin Kolodny said.

Often times, there are little policy differences between the candidates running in contested races. Some voters wait until the general election, knowing they'll vote for whichever Democrat or Republican emerges from the primary election.

That particularly is exemplified in the Democratic Senate race, Kolodny said. Frontrunners Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak only slightly disagree on most policy issues, though John Fetterman presents an anti-establishment option.

The race is unlikely to send a lot of casual voters to the polls, Kolodny said.

"I think this is one of those classic battles of who's supporting each of them," Kolodny said. "That's going to get the various votes out. She's got a lot of party regulars that don't like that Sestak doesn't always play ball. He's got a lot of union supporters. That's what it's going to come down to."

If Pennsylvania sees a 30 percent turnout, Kolodny said she'd be mildly surprised. She anticipates turnout in the mid- to high-20s with higher figures in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where political machines will help drive turnout.

The impact of the presidential campaigns remains to be seen.

"We got a little bit of a bump in 2008 because we were relevant then," Kolodny said. "It is technically undecided on both sides, but it's not that far from behind decided."