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Has the GOP lost its enthusiasm edge?

February 01, 2012|By David Lauter
  • This chart by Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout, tracks the percentage change in voter turnout in Florida between the 2008 GOP primary and Tuesday's contest.
This chart by Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout, tracks the percentage… (Michael McDonald / George…)

Fewer Republicans turned out to vote in this year’s Florida primary than in 2008 -- down about 14%. A sign of trouble ahead?

Democrats have been quick to say so, suggesting that the lower turnout points to weakness on the part of the party’s front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Reading too much into the tea leaves about primary turnout is always a risk: Many factors can influence turnout, including the number of candidates, the nature of the campaigns and other measures on the ballot.

Still, Republicans already have been worried about the enthusiasm of their voters. Two years ago, when they won control of the House, Republican candidates clearly benefited from highly motivated voters on their side. Polls have suggested that the “enthusiasm gap” has dissipated since.

Last month, Republican strategists pointed to small increases in turnout for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and the big jump in South Carolina as evidence that their voters were getting fired up about the campaign to come. Now, the big drop in Florida turnout has caused some to suggest that Romney has failed to excite voters.

Some evidence backs up that idea. For example, this graph above, posted at the Huffington Post by Michael McDonald of George Mason University, one of the country’s leading experts on voter turnout.

The dots represent Florida’s counties. Dots in the upper right-hand part of the graph show places where Newt Gingrich did particularly well and turnout was up. The large number of dots in the lower left-hand of the graph show counties where Gingrich did badly and turnout was down. The overall message: “It was primarily the counties Gingrich did well in” – mostly conservative, rural areas in northern Florida – that saw an increase in turnout, McDonald said.  By contrast, the large urban and suburban counties where Romney won heavily had big turnout declines.

Of course, it’s those big urban and suburban areas – Miami, Orlando, Tampa and the like – where Republicans will have to do well in order to win Florida back from President Obama in November.

Too few examples of contested Republican primaries exist to allow anyone to know how much predictive value the turnout in the primary may have, McDonald noted. But “all things being equal, I’d rather see more of my voters show up than fewer,” he said. For Romney’s campaign, the turnout turn-down may not be significant bad news, but could be “a warning sign.”

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