A stay-home election?

    Forecasting the future is often risky, which is why I’ve hesitated to share my prediction that voter turnout in 2012 will be lower than usual. It’s just a theory, but it seems commonsensical. The Democratic base is less enthused about Barack Obama than it was in 2008, independents are turned off to politicians in general, and the Republican base doesn’t feel the love for likely nominee Mitt Romney.All I needed was some actual evidence. And now there is evidence.Just check out the voting tallies in Iowa and New Hampshire. Republicans, for instance, are supposedly laser-focused on firing the Kenyan socialist whom they loathe so intensely – you’ve heard all the rhetoric about “taking back America,” about how the destiny of the nation is at stake – yet the 2012 turnout in the first two GOP contests was virtually no different than the 2008 turnout. And, lest we forget, 2008 was a year when Republican spirits were in the pits.The Iowa Republican caucuses drew 119,000 voters four years ago – and 122,000 voters last week. The teensy uptick in 2012 was mainly due to Ron Paul, who coaxed a lot of independents and disaffected Democrats to sign up as Republicans for a night.The New Hampshire Republican primary drew 239,000 voters four years ago – and 248,000 this week. Yes, the ’12 tally was a tad higher. But that’s hardly the whole story. Given the GOP’s supposed eagerness to take back the White House and America, the latest turnout should have been much higher. Back in 2008, when Democrats were enthused about burying the Bush era, the New Hampshire Democratic primary drew nearly 288,000. And remember, in 2008 there were two contested NH primaries, each competing to attract the participation of independents. This time, the Republican primary was the only game in town; New Hampshire’s independents should have flooded in, joining the supposedly enthused GOP base. With a virtual monopoly on the primary electorate, the GOP should have racked up far more voters. But let’s not pick solely on the Republicans.The New Hampshire Democrats also staged a primary, a pro forma affair with President Obama on the ballot. That has long been the tradition with incumbents; in 1984, President Reagan appeared on the New Hampshire ballot in an uncontested GOP primary, President Clinton was similarly featured in an uncontested 1996 Democratic primary, and President Bush got the same deal in the 2004 Republican primary.Typically, the only New Hampshire folks who show up to vote are the president’s biggest fans and the incumbent party’s most diehard loyalists. In 1984, the Reagan event drew 65,000 votes; in 1996, the Clinton event drew 90,000; in 2004, the Bush event drew 67,000.The Obama event drew only 47,000. That paltry tally might be a portent of trouble this autumn on the Democratic side.Turnout experts are surely not surprised by these underwhelming early figures; they have been suggesting all along that 2012 could be a stay-home election. One week before the Iowa caucuses, in fact, the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate predicted that the near-record turnout in 2008 (when 62 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls) will not be repeated in 2012. Not even close.The likely downtick begins with the young adults. Center director Curtis Gans wrote: “Because Obama the president did not fulfill the hope invested in Obama the candidate, there has been an enormous sense of disappointment among those young who had been previously politically active, and the current crop of college-resident young do not have the same compelling motivation to engage as those who preceded them (in 2008). For these and other deeper systemic reasons, it is virtually certain that there will be a substantial drop-off in the level of youth participation and voting in 2012.”However, “youth are not the only reason that turnout will likely be lower in 2012. Under normal circumstances, recessions usually drive turnout higher. This election is likely to be different. There is little enthusiasm for any of the candidates. Polls show that the base of the Democratic party still supports the president, but the enthusiasm level is much diminished and the disappointment level is much elevated.”Similarly, “None of the Republican candidates enjoys the full support of all elements of the party. That, in turn, is likely to have some supporters of candidates other than the nominee sitting out the election. The nomination process has forced all of the candidates to take positions on issues in the hopes of gaining the support of the activists who identify with the Tea Party, positions that are likely to undermine the eventual nominee’s support among independent voters.”All told, “Unless the economy in general and unemployment in particular shows sustained signs of improvement by summer of 2012, the unprecedented level of public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country will grow, as will citizen hostility to the leaders of both parties for their total inability to work together to improve the economy….The election is likely to offer a minimum of hope and a maximum of televised invective – likely between the perception of a failed president and a party of failed ideas, magnified by an unprecedented level of scurrilous and vitriolic and often ad hominem television advertising. Against this backdrop, it is hard to envision anything other than a substantial decline in turnout.”Grim, yes. But it sounds right to me. Perhaps the verdict in November will hinge on the millions of heretofore habitual voters who are simply too dispirited to show up at all.——-Newt Gingrich’s persistent Bain-bashing of Mitt Romney is a boon to the Obama campaign. At this rate, the president may have to show his gratitude by awarding Newt a brand-new account at Tiffany. Or so I suggested in my latest newspaper column.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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