By TRIP GABRIEL
Published: March 30, 2012
After presidential primaries or caucuses in 28 states, voters are sending a potentially troubling message to the Republican Party: We aren’t necessarily as excited about the campaign as you think.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
By some analysts’ measures, turnout is down thus far from four years ago among Republican voters in primaries and caucuses.
By some important measures, voting analysts say, turnout is down in the Republican nominating contests compared with 2008, defying the widespread assumption that Republicans would line up in huge numbers for a chance to evict President Obama from the White House.
There is some encouraging news for Republicans. Some gauges of voter intensity continue to show Republicans far more enthusiastic about this election than are Democrats; a New York Times/CBS News poll this month found that 40 percent of Republican primary voters say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the presidential election this year, compared with 29 percent of Democrats. And the overall number of people voting in the Republican primaries is up slightly compared with four years ago.
But despite the spirited battle between Mitt Romney and a succession of challengers, turnout as a percentage of the eligible voting population is down, and the states where turnout is up are often those that allow Democrats and independents to vote in Republican contests.
Analysts said that Mr. Romney has had particular trouble energizing urban and suburban voters — typically moderates and swing voters — who would be vital to him against Mr. Obama. Less-than-robust turnout in the primaries from those areas in states like Florida and Michigan, analysts said, suggests a challenge for Mr. Romney in energizing independents and the less conservative components of the Republican electorate.
“I think that is his biggest weakness that this election has exposed,” said Michael P. McDonald, an expert in voter turnout at George Mason University. “That is where the presidential election is decided. The Romney campaign hasn’t demonstrated to this point they’re capable of really exciting those people.”
According to Dr. McDonald, total turnout in Republican primaries as a share of the eligible voting population has declined since 2008. The raw number of voters has climbed a bit, by 1.3 percent — to 9.4 million in 2012 from 9.3 million. But the population of eligible voters has climbed even faster, by 2.8 percent over the past four years.
“The turnout increase we’re seeing is not keeping pace with population growth,” Dr. McDonald said. (He excludes two states with much lower turnouts this year, Virginia and Missouri, because of special circumstances.)
Mr. Romney’s campaign and many party officials argue that once there is a nominee the party will rally strongly around him to deny Mr. Obama re-election.
“There will be no enthusiasm gap for Mitt Romney in the general,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney senior adviser. “Barack Obama will be the single biggest unifier the Republican Party has ever seen.”
Republican turnout this year has had as many ups and downs as a Tilt-a-Whirl. After an initial period of excitement that produced higher turnouts in the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — enthusiasm appeared to wane even as the race stayed competitive.
A study by the Bipartisan Policy Center of the 13 states with primaries through Super Tuesday, March 6, found that turnout was down in eight states. In the five states with increased turnout, all allowed Democrats or independents to vote in the Republican contests — a factor that would have been less in play four years ago when there was a contested Democratic race. (The study did not include caucuses, which are harder to compare.)
“I think it reflects the enthusiasm level within the Republican Party is low,” said Curtis Gans, a political scientist at American University, who conducted the study. “Even a close race has not drawn rank-and-file Republicans at the same levels in some cases compared to 2008.”
Because the Republican Party has been polarized between a candidate viewed as more moderate, Mr. Romney, and a conservative wing that has coalesced around one alternative after another, Mr. Gans said a certain number of Republicans would be disappointed in the nominee and would probably sit on the sidelines in November. It is a point that many Republican leaders dispute, convinced that antipathy toward Mr. Obama is so strong it will make up for any enthusiasm gap for the nominee.
“When voters see if it’s a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I don’t think any Alabamians are going to sit on their hands,” said Bill Armistead, Republican Party chairman of Alabama, where Mr. Romney finished third in the primary.
In Alabama and other states that voted after Super Tuesday, turnout climbed again, most recently in Louisiana on Saturday, where the unofficial number of Republican voters, 186,400, set a record, up 25,000 from 2008. It was also a record proportion of eligible voters, 5.6 percent, according to Mr. Gans.
Comparing voter turnouts between election cycles is an inexact science, and often full of apples-and-oranges contrasts. Participation in Virginia was off severely this year presumably because only Mr. Romney and Representative Ron Paul were on the ballot. The turnout in Alabama was most likely increased because the three leading candidates campaigned aggressively in the state, whereas in 2008 Alabama was ignored.
In Florida, where turnout fell 14 percent, the 2008 figure was inflated by a controversial property-tax initiative on the ballot.
In an analysis of the Florida primary, Dr. McDonald, who directs the United States Elections Project at George Mason, found evidence of potential weakness for Mr. Romney. The data showed that in urban and suburban counties that Mr. Romney won, voter turnout was lower than in 2008. At the same time, in the rural and more conservative counties won by the second-place finisher, Newt Gingrich, turnout was higher, suggesting voter excitement over conservative candidates but a lack of passion for the race in more moderate areas.
Mr. Romney “has got to figure out how to excite the people he doesn’t seem to be exciting, these moderate voters in the Republican Party and also the conservatives,” Dr. McDonald said, adding there was evidence of the same phenomenon in Michigan.
The numbers have been seized on by Mr. Gingrich and Rick Santorum as evidence that Mr. Romney would face a substantial handicap in the fall were he to become the nominee.
Mr. Gingrich, whose prospects have all but evaporated, sent a defiant Twitter message as the Illinois results came in on March 20: “A nominee that depresses turnout won’t beat Barack Obama. Still time for a conservative.”
Mr. Santorum has made the same argument, telling voters that only a conservative nominee will inspire passionate opposition to the president.
Mr. Armistead suggested a reason for low or lower than expected turnouts is that the drawn-out race has posed a challenge to voters’ attention spans.
“They’re wanting to get this over with,” he said. “Some are so weary of all the politics.”
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