- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

One of the best-kept political secrets of the Democratic primaries until now has been their low voter turnout, a potentially troubling development for the party’s chances in November.

Despite rah-rah news reports that an aroused and angry Democratic voter base was turning out in droves to choose their party’s presidential nominee, Democratic turnout was, in the aggregate, the third-lowest on record.

This is the conclusion of a little-noticed report by Curtis Gans, the voter turnout specialist who runs the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Few know more about turnout rates than Mr. Gans, an old-line Democrat, and the preliminary primary data have left him underwhelmed.

“Contrary to some published reports, and with the singular exception of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which set a new record high, Democratic turnout in the party’s presidential primaries through Super Tuesday (when John Kerry all but locked up the nomination) was generally low,” he says.

Democratic turnout (an estimated 10.3 million) made up 11.4 percent of eligible voters “in the 20 states which held primaries through Super Tuesday, higher than the 9 percent which voted in the uncontested 1996 primaries and the virtually uncontested primaries in 2000 in which 10.1 percent of the eligible electorate voted,” Mr. Gans reports. “But 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.”

Republican turnout was also the lowest on record, but this is because there was no primary contest and President Bush was assured of renomination.

Surprisingly, Democratic turnout “reached record lows” in some of the most intensely Democratic states in the country. In Connecticut and New York, it fell to 5.4 percent.

Turnout set a record in New Hampshire and a near record in the Iowa caucuses, but this was in large part due to the heavy concentration of time, retail campaigning, big money and TV coverage over many months.

Elsewhere, though, Mr. Gans finds a “disturbing low level of voter turnout — between 30 and 50 percent lower than turnouts in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“What seems apparent is that the religion of civic duty, which brought large percentages of the electorate out to vote regardless of what was at stake, has been severely undermined,” he says.

Many things are to blame for the decline, Mr. Gans says, but particularly the compressed, light-speed primary schedule in 20 of the 50 states that resulted in wholesale campaigning, and polls showing between 20 percent and 30 percent of the voters didn’t know much about Mr. Kerry. “This truncated schedule, created by the Democratic Party, may come back to haunt it, 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 says.

He’s right, as we will see with the intense counterattacks from the Bush campaign portraying Mr. Kerry as weak, confused and vacillating on key national security issues.

The abrupt falloff in Democratic voter interest in the primaries could be a troubling sign the party’s base is not as energized as its leaders believe it to be. Mr. Gans discounts this and notes participation in primaries is no forecast of future general election turnout. He believes general election turnout will actually be higher, fueled by the fiery national debate over the Iraq war, jobs and the economy.

But elections are all about percentages, and often are won or lost on the margins. In the end, after the rallies, speeches and debates, this year’s election will be decided on turnout — namely, which party can get more of its base to the polls.

This is what decided most of the close House and Senate races in the 2002 contests, when Republicans made history by gaining seats in an off-year election when the party in power usually loses them. The GOP ran a strong ground campaign that focused heavily on voter registration and a personalized, house-to-house voter turnout effort that beat the Democrats’ labor union organizers at their own game.

Notably, this is what the Bush campaign is engaged in now, signing up millions of new voters and preparing an even larger ground drive to get them to the voting booths on Election Day.

Voter enthusiasm and commitment are the key ingredients in all this, especially in what pollster John Zogby calls “a 50-50 election” in which the electorate is deeply polarized. But polls show 9 in 10 Bush voters say they are voting for the president because they support him; most Kerry voters say they will vote for him because they want someone other than Mr. Bush.

Voters who are politically committed to a candidate are usually more reliable than voters who are merely voting against a candidate, with little or no commitment to who is running.

Meantime, Mr. Gans’ report raises some troubling questions about Democratic turnout and offers this warning: “The level of disinterest in these primaries and in attachment to these parties augurs ill for the American political system.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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