Primary turnout a GOP concern?
Given the Republican obsession with making President Barack Obama a one-term president, we would have expected GOP faithful to be setting all kinds of turnout records during this year’s primary nominating contests to ensure they end up with the strongest candidate come November.
And we would have been wrong.
At least that’s the early assessment from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by four one-time Senate majority leaders – Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell; Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker – to push for bipartisan solutions in Washington.
Based on results through last month’s Super Tuesday contests, only 11.5 percent of eligible citizens had voted during the first 13 Republican primaries this year.
That’s down from 13.2 percent in 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCain outlasted former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas for the nomination. It’s also lower than the 12.2 percent who turned out in 2000 to nominate George W. Bush over Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes and McCain.
Eight of the 13 states that had voted by March 6 recorded a lower turnout than four years earlier. The five states that reported higher turnouts were those that permit independents – like New Hampshire – or Democrats and independents to vote in Republican contests.
Speaking of New Hampshire, in keeping with its reputation as a state that takes its elections seriously, the Granite State recorded the highest turnout of eligible voters in all 13 states, according to the report compiled jointly by the Bipartisan Policy Center and American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.
All told, 24.46 percent of New Hampshire’s eligible citizens voted in this year’s GOP primary, up 0.26 percentage points from 2008. South Carolina, which voted 11 days later, placed second (17.32 percent) and was followed by Ohio (13.88 percent), Michigan (13.63 percent) and Georgia (13.22 percent.)
So why has Republican turnout been down this year?
In some cases, it can be attributed purely to circumstances, with Virginia serving as Exhibit A. This year, only 4.57 percent of the state’s eligible voters participated in the March 6 primary, presumably because Ron Paul and Romney were the only candidates to qualify for the ballot.
Curtis Gans, director of the center at American University, cites another reason for the decline: the candidates themselves.
“I think it reflects the enthusiasm level within the Republican Party is low,” he told The New York Times last month. “Even a close race has not drawn rank-and-file Republicans at the same levels in some cases compared to 2008.”
In fact, Gans believes the disconnect between conservatives and the historically more moderate Romney is so great that many Republicans may opt to sit on their hands in November.
We’re not so sure. Faced with a choice between Romney and Obama, we suspect most conservatives will be more likely to hold their noses and vote for their party’s nominee – warts and all – than to stay home and boost the re-election chances of the Democratic incumbent.
Still, the drop in voter participation in the early primaries is certainly worth noting, just the latest development in a script-defying march to the Republican National Convention this summer in Tampa.