Campaign 2012: Focus on voter turnout

March 5th, 2012

BaylessThe following opinion piece was written by journalism professor Fred Bayles, a former USA Today and AP reporter. He is also the director of BU’s State House Program.

One of the seminal lessons I had as a young reporter was the time I sat down with Vermont’s then lieutenant governor who explained the state’s political and legislative process in lawyerly, constitutional language. At the end of the talk he stopped to deliver the kicker: “What it comes down to, however, is you can do anything if you have the horses to win the vote.”

Before and after each primary, the media hyperventilates about many factors: momentum, shifts in support, money spent, money raised, and attack ads. The actual numbers, the horses, so to speak, are relegated to the agate deep in the stories – if in fact they are mentioned at all.

We haven’t seen much about the delegate count yet. But after tomorrow’s Super Tuesday, we can expect that tally to take on greater significance. But there is another set of numbers that, though ignored, should be giving all Republicans a strong case of heartburn – voter turnout.

Despite the millions of ad dollars spent, the numerous campaign stops and the 24-hour controversies, only 15 and 20 percent of Michigan voters bothered to cast a ballot last Tuesday. Arizona saw a 38 percent voter turnout. Compare that to the 51 percent turnout in 2008.

Indeed, every primary vote so far this season, with the exception of South Carolina, saw a sharp decline in voter turnout compared to the 2008 primary votes.

As with all agate there are some asterisks. The numbers may be skewed by the fact that 2008 saw a strongly contested Democratic primary and a general election to fill an empty Oval Office. But that is not enough to explain the plunging graphs showing a growing boycott-by-apathy among Republican voters – particularly those considered the critical suburban swing votes.

Romney wasn’t able to rally the significant numbers of those voters on Tuesday. He’s had the same problem in earlier races. The motivated voters, those tacking toward the conservative, Tea Party side of the party, are more fired up, but their numbers won’t be enough by themselves to sharply influence November’s general election.

Two factors may explain this buyout among voters.

One is the lack of enthusiasm with the candidates, including the guy who is likely to win. Polls show a consistent 60 percent of Republicans wistful about the entry of another candidate they could care about.

The second factor speaks to the success of negative political advertising. The scorched earth campaigns of all the candidates, particularly Romney, may be working to the point that part voters believe none of these guys is worth voting for.

Come November that could be a real problem for whoever wears the Republican mantle.

Contact Bayles at 617-353-7736; fbayles@bu.edu

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