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Primaries failing to draw numbers

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Voter turnout in the Democratic presidential contests that quickly sealed the nomination for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was one of the lowest on record, according to a study released yesterday.

The findings were in sharp contrast to the media-driven image of an angry and energized Democratic electorate turning out in droves in the party's delegate-selection contests through the Super Tuesday primaries.

With the exception of New Hampshire, the report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which tabulates and analyzes voter participation, said that turnout "was generally low -- in the aggregate, the third-lowest on record."

"Only an estimated 10.3 million citizens ... nationally participated in the selection of Sen. John Kerry as the Democratic nominee," it said.

That constituted just 11.4 percent of the electorate,

The Republican presidential primary turnout was the lowest on record. An estimated 4 million voters, or 6.6 percent of the eligible electorate in the 11 states that held primaries went to the polls. But, unlike the crowded field of candidates in the Democratic primaries, President Bush was assured of renomination.

"We've known from looking at the primary numbers for 2000, when we last had a primary on the Republican side, that the turnout was higher on the GOP side in most states than it has been for the Democratic primaries in 2004," said Christine Iverson, the Republican National Committee's press secretary.

Senior Democratic Party officials took what little solace they could from the report's finding that Democratic turnout in the 20 states that held primaries through Super Tuesday on March 2 was "higher than the 9 percent which voted in the uncontested 1996 presidential primaries and the virtually (after New Hampshire) uncontested primaries in 2000 in which 10.1 percent of the eligible electorate voted."

"There is energy and enthusiasm for our Democratic nominee and that's an indication that the Democrats will have a much better turnout in the general election," said Tony Welch, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

But comparisons to 1996 and 2000 was thin gruel for the Democrats in light of the rest of the report's turnout data, which suggested surprisingly anemic turnout in the Democrats' political base.

Overall, "it was lower than the turnout for every other presidential primary season in these states and more than 50 percent lower than the primary turnouts of 1968 and 1972," the report said.

Turnout in the later Democratic contests was in sharp contrast to the higher voter participation levels in New Hampshire and near-record turnout in the Iowa caucuses that preceded it.

But the report's author, Curtis Gans, pointed out that "turnout levels in presidential primaries are not a predictor of general election turnout." Primary turnout increased between 1984 and 1988 (from 24 percent of eligibles to 25.9 percent) but general election turnout fell in 1988 to the lowest level since 1924."

The speed with which Mr. Kerry sailed through the compressed primaries to become the presumptive nominee "may come back to haunt [his party], as it gives the GOP five months to define Kerry before he has his optimum opportunity to present himself in the best light at the Democratic National Convention," Mr. Gans said.