2012 primary turnout heading lower
Turnout for most GOP primaries and caucuses hits new lows
There can be little doubt that turnout in the GOP primaries is reflecting some kind of political margin of diminishing returns. In almost every state holding a GOP primary or caucus on ‘Super Tuesday’, turnout was down from 2008. Regardless of whether the state is big or small, suspenseful or predictable; regardless of geographical region and almost regardless of demographics, turnout went mostly down. The partial exceptions were Ohio, Vermont and North Dakota, the latter two heavily organized by Ron Paul supporters.
Massachusetts gave Mitt Romney a huge margin—Romney won with over 70 percent of the vote–but showed little life otherwise. Ask the six voters who turned up at one precinct in Springfield. Anecdotal evidence abounds from around the state, corroborated by unofficial tallies showing total turnout at 355,454 votes cast. The official figure given for the GOP primary in 2008 is 1,108,854. That’s a two-thirds drop in turnout in a hotly contested GOP primary season.
Obviously, predictability is a factor. In a state viewed as Romney’s home, where Romney was governor, there was little perceived suspense. Furthermore, Romney-alternative Rick Santorum recently declared that John F. Kennedy’s speech on religious tolerance and the separation of church and state in America made him want to throw up. His words. Scant wonder Santorum failed to pick up even one delegate in Massachusetts.
Turnout was depressed for ample reason in Virginia, too, with only Romney and Ron Paul on the ballot. Romney won Virginia with 60 percent of the vote, but with Paul his only opponent, the outcome was not considered seriously in doubt. Unofficial tallies put the vote total at 265,520. Local reporting on the ground confirms the low turnout, predicted to be low in Virginia. Danville and the Danville area, Hampton Roads, the Valley, Lynchburg, etc., etc.—the story was the same across the state, generally attributed to the fact that most of the GOP candidates were not on the ballot. However, the remarkably poor turnout contrasts heavily with Virginia’s Democratic primary in 2008—which had been narrowed to a two-person contest, although by less doofy processes than in Virginia 2012. Democrats did not get de-energized in a two-person race in 2008; maybe the number of people on the ballot matters less than who the candidates are. The 2008 Democratic primary, furthermore, was hit by a massive ice storm affecting the entire mid-Atlantic. People drove through the storm, or took mass transit through the storm, that Feb. 12 to vote for the candidate of their choice—Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton–in the ‘Chesapeake primary’. Some of them drove or traveled for hours to do so after a full work day.
Or for simpler comparison, contrast the 265K number above to the Republican presidential primary in Virginia in 2008: Less enthusiastic than the Dems’, it still totaled 489,252. That’s a drop by almost half in 2012.
Predictability cannot be the whole story
For a less predictable state, take Ohio, where the outcome was in serious doubt until late into the night March 6, and where Romney finally won by twelve thousand votes. In arguably the most hotly contested of the day’s primaries, with millions in advertising, billed by media outlets as the one to watch, turnout was nonetheless low. Official results are not yet posted, but by all accounts turnout stayed less than 25 percent. The unofficial total is 1,181,074 votes cast. The total reported for the GOP presidential primary in 2008 is 1,095,917. A slightly higher turnout in numbers this time, but an increase of only 85,000 statewide, in the most ballyhooed primary in the nation. It would be interesting to know how many of the 85,000 were crossover Democrats.*
Ohio also had a GOP primary for the Senate, with Republicans hoping to take back the seat held by Sen. Sherrod Brown, who won his primary. One of the livelier spots in Ohio 2012 was Cuyahoga County, where Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich had been redistricted against each other. Turnout reached 25 percent there largely because of the Democratic race.
Or take a look at Tennessee, another of the less predictable states. The unofficial total, again for a state where the outcome was in some suspense, is 540,791 votes cast. In the GOP presidential primary in February 2008, the total was 553,815 votes cast. The 2008 primary had a high-interest field of nine persons, including winner Mike Huckabee. But then, as mentioned, this year’s contest in Tennessee was regarded as holding some interest too.
If a safe primary does not generate large turnout, and a suspenseful primary does not generate large turnout, what does that leave?
Quick run-down, primaries:
Georgia: total votes unofficially reported 872,888. The Secretary of State’s office puts the total somewhat higher, at 900,129. The Georgia State Board of Elections also has a commendably user-friendly web site, with historical comparisons accessible. In 2008, the GOP presidential primary had 963,541 votes cast. Be it noted that the drop in Georgia is at least less than the drop some other places. Newt Gingrich himself has pointed out that turnout this year tends to be higher in places where he wins than in places where he loses. Down.
Oklahoma: vote total reported unofficially as 283,308. The total for the GOP presidential primary in 2008 was 335,054. Down.
Vermont: vote total this year 54,949. Same vote (GOP presidential primary) in 2008 is reported unofficially as 39,843. There was even less enthusiasm for Rick Santorum’s candidacy in Vermont than in neighboring Massachusetts. For quick comparison to the general elections in Vermont over the years, go here. Up.
Quick run-down, caucuses:
Alaska caucuses: Total this year 12,926. Total in 2008 13,703. Down.
Idaho caucuses: Total this year 44,655. Total in 2008 125,056. Way down.
North Dakota caucuses: Total this year 11,349. Total in 2008 9,743. Up. An exception.
There is more than one way to look at this decline in turnout. Argument is different from statistics. While there is no question about the decline, there is some question about what it means, or how much it means. Lack of enthusiasm, yes. Lack of drive to vote, yes. Why? Open to question.
As previously written, the committed Obama-haters do not need a reason to vote. They hardly need a candidate.
Also as previously written, much of the Republican electorate gives every sign of wanting to know as little about its candidates as possible. They want somebody else? They like seeing someone new? They suddenly jump onto a new and intriguing bandwagon, and just as abruptly jump off it? They get turned off by candidate after candidate, after learning more about the candidate? They remain uncommitted to Mitt Romney because they know so much about him? Romney’s unfavorable rating goes up the longer he stays in the race? The common denominator underlying these trends is the same throughout: This is lack of knowledge, and a lack of knowledge enthusiastically embraced, lack of knowledge rewarding the candidate, lack of knowledge about the candidate perceived as a plus.
The GOP is struggling mightily: It has opened up, mixed up, broadened, varied, adjusted and otherwise democratized its primary process, to choose a candidate who will uphold anti-democratizing policies. This can hardly be done.
*Note: CNN reports that its exit polls show 5 percent of GOP voters were Democrats this time. If accurate, that would be 59,000 Dems, or equivalent to most of the increase in turnout from 2008. These numbers on party ID are not watertight, but CNN was the first network to report–accurately–that Romney was actually leading in the close Ohio race. CNN had the advantage of the on-site work done by Dana Bash, at the county level, to provide more solid numbers, faster, than other networks. The reporting was swiftly picked up by John King and Wolf Blitzer, and swiftly conveyed. Arithmetic trumps preconceived story lines, actual voting trumps preliminary opinion polls.
Note: This post is corroborated by the run-down posted by Daily Kos, just a few hours after the above. East Coast met by West, once West Coast gets up.