Conventional wisdom hinted at high levels of Republican turnout in this year’s nominating contests. Building on relatively light 2008 turnout seemed a lock, and this appeared all the more likely considering the lack of a Democratic primary fight this time around.
Taking into account the electorate’s present angst and 2010’s Tea Party primary successes, most observers would have penciled in massive turnout increases in this year’s Republican primary and caucus states. But with results from seven states in thus far (the state of Missouri does not make for a valid comparison due to 2012’s lack of attached delegates) the picture is shaping up quite differently.
Of the four caucus states to vote so far, Iowa’s 16% rise in turnout was the only increase. Turnout declined by 26% in Nevada, 20% in Minnesota, and 3% in Colorado. When one considers these caucus states disproportionally represent the energized party faithful, moderate to substantial dip in turnout is reason enough to concern Republicans. The raw numbers are more symptomatic of an underlying problem when population inflation is taken into account; the raw numbers show more of a percentage drop when increased population numbers are considered.
Of the three primary states, only South Carolina saw a substantial jump in turnout. It rose 33%–an impressive uptick but huge outlier. Turnout in New Hampshire was essentially flat (up 2%), and Florida turnout was down 16 percentage points when contrasted to 2008. Once again, population gains cause these numbers to understate just how much Republican turnout has fallen.
Taking a look at the states with closed primaries flags an even more deleterious trend for Republicans. All three states that bar independents and members of other political parties from voting in their primaries or caucuses have seen a drop in turnout. In some cases the fall has been substantial.
Florida, Nevada, and Colorado have hosted closed primaries—two of these three states saw a double digit drop in participation. This means registered Republican voters are casting less ballots in an atmosphere where they should hypothetically be chomping at the bit to have their voices heard.
Roughly 155,000 fewer ballots have been cast in 2012 through the same seven contests. Republican operatives and strategists are no doubt aware of this, and some of the blame can certainly be pinned on the toxic campaign atmosphere engendered so far. But such a steep drop in a year when the party’s base was not thought apathetic is worthy of more than a raised eyebrow; the Republican Party has little choice but to confront the reasons behind depressed enthusiasm.
Exit poll data have not shown much, if any, increased minority or under 40 turnout. The electorate is skewing older and almost exclusively Caucasian (the latter being understandable in an Iowa and New Hampshire, but demonstrative of outreach problems in diverse states like South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada.)
Leaving aside the impact of this year’s seesaw polling on the Republican brand, these raw numbers alone show the party’s decreasing appeal. The closed primary states starkly illustrate the passionless support levels being enjoyed by the Republican Party in its current manifestation.
Too many more election cycles of this and Republicans will become a substantial minority party; they must find a way to begin reaching young and minority voters if this fate is to be avoided. The numbers can be twisted and attempts made to explain them away, but in the end they shed light on a situation in need of addressing.