Campaign 2012: The enthusiasm gap

April 9th, 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.

Now that the seeming inevitability of a Romney nomination has, according to the media pundits, progressed to inevitability (until Santorum wins another primary and dashes the predictions for another week), it is time for reporters and analysts to raise their gaze above the rush of serial primaries and look deeper into the numbers.

Romney has won some; Santorum has won fewer. Gingrich and Paul hardly won at all. But win or lose, the contests were notable in one way: the lack of voter participation.

With the exception of South Carolina, the primary turnout in every state has been much lower than the primaries of 2008. Granted there was arguably more interest in the 2008 open seat presidential contest. Still, throughout this year’s primary circus, when Romney lost it was often because too few of his base voters, the suburban Republican moderates, bothered to make the trek to the voting booth. When he won, it was generally in states with larger urban populations where the pool of moderates outweighed the pool of conservative voters by numbers if not by enthusiasm.

Consider Massachusetts, one of many “home game” advantages for the former governor who also claims roots in New Hampshire, Michigan and Utah and the Cayman Islands. In the 2008 primary, Romney topped McCain with 259,802 votes to 204,779. A scattering of other candidates brought the vote total to slightly less than 500,000 votes. Last month, Romney scored just 8,000 votes more than he did in 2008 even though runner-up Santorum gathered only 44,255. In total, 370,325 voted in the race, a 26 percent decline over 2008. Despite the fact that Romney was the most palatable candidate to Massachusetts’ more moderate brand of Republicanism, he was only able to raise his vote total by 3 percent. A majority of the rest of those who voted in 2008 stayed home. So much for Republican claims that Massachusetts will be a battleground state in November.

The Massachusetts numbers mirror what has happened in most of the other Republican primaries: lower turnout with only a slight bump up for Romney in most vote totals. The presumed Republican candidate has consistently failed to garner any kind of enthusiasm from his own party. Polls still show a yearning for another candidate to appear and sweep the GOP majority off its feet. Unless Romney gets a personality transplant, he isn’t likely to be that suitor. Add to his charisma deficit the challenge he will have in wooing moderate independent voters after spending months trying to convince the Republican Right that he is Attila the Hun. It’s the Etch-A-Sketch conundrum.

There will be a fixed number of people who will vote for Romney because they like him. But he will only win the election if a greater number of people vote for him because they don’t like Obama, who has proven to be a likeable candidate who, at least in 2008, won the enthusiasm gap without breaking a sweat.

Romney will only win if enough people hold their nose and vote for him. That’s hardly a business plan.

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

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