Pundits increasingly suggest the low turnout in recent Republican primaries may be a bad omen for the GOP’s general election campaign. However, elections expert Larry Sabato told Red Alert that “problems with Republican enthusiasm are probably being overstated.” With a polarizing figure like President Obama on the ballot, Republicans are unlikely to stay home in November.
For starters, it’s worth noting that the developing low-turnout narrative is only partially true. Despite reports from liberal outlets about “disappointing” numbers in Iowa, caucus goers actually broke 2008’s record turnout by 3 percent. New Hampshire turnout was up 4 percent. South Carolina turnout was up a staggering 35 percent.
Florida’s turnout was the first to break the upward streak by dropping 14 percent, though this is partially because the 2008 primary ballot featured a property tax initiative that drew normally uninterested voters to the polls. Nevada turnout was down 26 percent, Colorado turnout was down 7 percent, Minnesota turnout was down 24 percent, and Missouri turnout plummeted 57 percent. Finally, Maine’s historically meager caucus turnout bucked the recent trend and was up slightly, compared to 2008.
If these numbers really do represent an overall negative trend in primary turnout, how damaging is this alleged dive in GOP enthusiasm?
“By November, most die-hard Republicans will vote for the GOP nominee and will vote for whoever opposes [President Obama] on the Republican ticket,” Sabato concluded, based on what he described as the GOP base’s “visceral dislike” of the President. The President’s historically polarizing approval ratings lend support to this argument.
Specifically addressing the Tea Party’s suspicion of apparent apparent front-runner Mitt Romney, Sabato noted that Romney proved in Florida and Nevada that he can win dissatisfied Tea Party supporters, and like Republican leaning voters in general, “those who back the Tea Party want to see President Obama defeated and will probably show up and vote for Romney even if they are not thrilled with his candidacy.”
In fact, if the economy tanks before November, much as it did in September 2008, Sabato believes that “any of the GOP candidates could defeat the incumbent,” though he continues to believe that Romney has the best chance.
History seems to confirm that the dynamics of a specific general election match-up is more relevant to the results than turnout in the primaries. For example, in 1980, Democratic primaries turned out six million more voters than the GOP primaries, and Reagan won in a landslide due in large part to a terrible economy. In 1988, Democratic primaries turned out almost 11 million more voters than the GOP primaries, and George H.W. Bush also won in a landslide.
The GOP nominee probably won’t win in a landslide, but the same factors that led to a 2010 Republican blowout are still present: an abysmal economy and unpopular Democratic policies.
The GOP could easily lose the general election in 2012, but it won’t be because of lukewarm support for the eventual nominee. If there is one thing the Republican base is undeniably enthusiastic about, it’s stopping President Obama’s agenda. Don’t count on them staying home in November.