Recent data suggests the possibility that the GOP might actually be suffering an enthusiasm gap. A flurry of polls in recent days has shown the GOP electorate is still sour on their presidential choices, is slightly less supportive of their home district Rep. and paying less attention to the election (in the polls cases the presidential race). So is the GOP facing an enthusiasm gap?
First, let’s look at the numbers at the presidential nomination level. In the first three nominating contests, IA, NH and SC, turnout was above 2008 levels. In IA and NH it was modest. In South Carolina turnout from 2008 jumped over 25%. Republicans crowed over the result, saying it showed deep opposition to the president among the party’s base.
But flash forward to Florida a week later and then NV and the GOP was singing a very different tune. Turnout in Florida was down almost 280,000 votes from 2008 and in NV it had dropped almost 11,000 votes. This, it was reported by Roll Call and the Hill, had many GOP insiders worried.
But should they be? Afterall the election context of individual states is different from any other state. Furthermore, 2012 is not 2008 over again. IA, NH and SC all have small populations and are used to retail politicking. It is far easier to connect with a voter face-to-face than it is through a TV ad. That is why Santorum did so well in IA, Romney in NH and to a lesser extent Gingrich in SC. Turnout should be expected to be higher in these states.
But move to Florida and the situation is different. Florida’s population, demographics and size do not fit to a retail campaigning style. You have to have money, a campaign structure and be able to air TV and radio ads. Turnout should thus be less than the first three contests as an overall share of the registered GOP electorate.
If we look at the 2008 and 2012 primary contests in Florida we can see key differences that could have affected turnout. In 2008 a controversial property tax initiative was on the ballot. The GOP primary was also open as opposed to 2012. Lastly, the negative campaigning in 08 in FL did not hold a candle to the negative campaigning in 2012. Voters who might vote often need a reason to do so for a candidate, and virtually every GOP candidate did not give voters that reason this year.
Lastly, Nevada’s lower turnout is not surprising. Virtually everybody in the state expected Romney to cruise easily to a win. Unexciting races do not draw voters to the polls. The timing of the Caucus, a day before the Super Bowl, could also have affected turnout.
Apparently some of the worries about turnout have targeted Romney’s campaign and how lackluster a nominee he is. These attacks were taken so seriously by the Romney campaign they had a chief strategist write a response on his campaign’s website. I’ll spare you a synopsis of the defense.
Recent history also suggests using a party’s nominating process turnout as a barometer for the party nominee’s chances in the general has been spotty at best. Both GOP and Democratic turnout in 08 were at historic levels, with open contests on both sides, yet Obama crushed McCain in the general election. Turnout in 2000 for Democrats was higher than the GOP’s field. And keep in mind Democrats had settled on Al Gore long before the nominating process officially started while the GOP process was a bitter feud between Bush and John McCain. Yet Bush narrowly beat Gore in the 2000 campaign.
So it seems less likely the GOP has an enthusiasm gap problem and simply a lackluster problem. None of the GOP candidates excite the party faithful. And while it is true that if this continues into the general election the GOP is likely to lose it is also likely the party faithful will become turned onto their nominee. Front and center for GOP voters in the nomination process has been the negatives of each candidate. But front and center for GOP voters in the general will be the positives of their presidential nominee. The amount of ammunition the GOP has on the alternative assures this.