National Perspective

The Turnout Threat

DENVER -- Where did all the voters go?

Maybe to the ski slopes. Maybe to the mall. Maybe for a wintry walk along one of the spectacular mountain byways. But not to the caucus venues where, earlier this month, Colorado Republicans were invited to indicate their presidential preferences. Turnout here was down about 6 percent from 2008.

But Colorado isn't alone. Turnout in Florida, where a torrid race filled the newspapers and the airwaves, was down about 14 percent. In Nevada, it was down more than a quarter. Even in New Hampshire, where turnout was up 6 percent, the increase almost certainly came from Independent voters who veered into a GOP race simply because there wasn't a Democratic race to join.

Maybe the question isn't (SET ITAL)Where are the voters?(END ITAL) Maybe the question is (SET ITAL)Where is the love?(END ITAL)

This has been a persistent problem in the Republican race thus far. Among the political elite, the issue has taken the form of yearning for candidates who aren't, or wouldn't, run for president. Among the voters, the issue has taken the form of near apathy.

The race to be the nominee who challenges Barack Obama simply isn't exciting members of a party that is determined, with a ferocity perhaps unequaled since Democratic resentment of Richard M. Nixon, to topple the sitting president.

"The public doesn't feel it has good choices and so people are staying at home," says Curtis Gans, who, as the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, is the nation's leading expert on voter participation. "I'm expecting it to continue. On the right you have intense voters. On the center-right you have lukewarm voters. And everyplace beyond that not much interest at all."

That frustration is pervasive. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll showed that nearly two out of three Republican primary voters wish there were more choices for the Republican nomination -- a group that has grown significantly since the fall.

This is yet another piece of bad news for former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who won Colorado and Minnesota in 2008 only to lose them this month. He's the fellow who appeals to the center-right and whom most political professionals expect to be the eventual Republican nominee -- a theory that gets its most rigorous test on Tuesday when Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries.

But the Romney challenge isn't the only one that seems obvious and has been the focus of press attention: His inability to win the trust, or the votes, of people who consider themselves conservatives and who worry that he is a stealth candidate from the center or, worse, from the left-leaning precincts of Massachusetts. The slice of self-identified GOP conservatives in the Times/CBS poll who wish there were more choices for the Republican nominee: 61 percent.

The Romney conundrum may also be how to win the allegiance, if not the enthusiasm, of the people who are positioned precisely where he is, along the center-right. A CNN poll released this month showed that only 38 percent of Romney supporters say they back him "strongly" -- far less than the 55 percent of supporters of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who say they back him "strongly."

Many of these voters are simply not showing up at the polls, and there is reason for Camp Romney to worry that they may not be motivated in the fall, when the opponent isn't Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Rep. Ron Paul. In November the opponent will have $1 billion to spend, a historic narrative and all the tools of presidential incumbency, many of which he is using with a newfound deftness this winter.

Santorum may have efficiently summarized the Romney challenge with this phrase, from his appearance before the Conservative Political Action Committee earlier this month: "Why would an undecided voter vote for a moderate candidate who the party isn't excited about?"

This week's contests are but an appetizer to the Super Tuesday contests next week, where turnout again is expected to be low and where, given the distinct Southern tint to the event, Romney faces another important challenge. Each of the other candidates has pockets of strength, or of potential, in the 10 races, with Paul having a natural advantage in Oklahoma, Gingrich holding a natural base in Georgia and Santorum aiming for Tennessee, perhaps also for Ohio, and hoping to surprise the former speaker in Georgia.

This is not to say that there aren't opportunities aplenty for Romney. All those young people who flocked to Obama four years ago don't have one of their principal motivations (their disdain for President George W. Bush) this time around, and many of them, especially those who have been unable to find jobs, are suffering a severe case of buyer's remorse. This is a natural Romney constituency. But turnout among the young is a very big unknown, and a very big factor.

Then there are all those elements of the usual Democratic coalition that don't seem part of the Obama vision, especially blue-collar Americans, many of whom also are worried about jobs. The opportunity here for Romney is small, to be sure, but there are many ways to define opportunity. One is in the small turnout that has dogged Romney himself. If that pattern carries over to traditional Democratic voters, Romney is the beneficiary of the absence of those ballots in the Obama pile in November.

Ordinarily the relationship between primary turnout and general election turnout is tenuous at best. But special factors in 2012 are at work.

For the Democrats, the risks are in small turnouts among young and blue-collar voters. For the Republicans, the risks are in small turnouts among conservatives and party regulars who may find they can't fall in love with Romney.

This time, the election may be won by the party that can turn around the turnout threat.

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