CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE — In January 2008 I discovered a new phenomenon in the annals of transportation: the Obama traffic jam. Heading down the narrow roads of New Hampshire to a rally with Senator Obama, I would be stopped by an inexplicable back-up of cars. An hour before the event was to begin, and miles away from the site, I’d be sitting still, wondering how on earth there could be traffic in a small town in the middle of the day. Eventually it dawned on me: all these people were going to the same place I was.
This time I went to at least one Republican event every day for five straight days, and I never once got caught in a traffic jam. The closest I came was being stuck behind a small convoy on the winding roads of New Hampshire’s Lakes region. It turned out that I was following Gingrich’s campaign bus itself.
Given the language you hear from Republicans about Barack Obama—that this is the most important election in decades because Obama’s socialist policies will be irreversible after a second term—you’d think Republican turnout in the primaries would be high. But in the first two contests it has been underwhelming. In New Hampshire, only around 249,000 votes were cast in the GOP primary, barely an increase over the 239,000 four years ago. And because New Hampshire is an open primary and there was no competitive contest on the Democratic side, that includes Democrats and independents who came out to vote for the least bad alternative, typically Jon Huntsman, as well as Ron Paul supporters who won’t necessarily support the GOP nominee in November. A week ago in the Iowa caucuses Republican turnout was only about 3,000 participants higher than in 2008. As Ari Berman noted, Republican turnout in the Iowa caucuses was nowhere near the level of Democratic turnout in 2008. In New Hampshire in 2008 the Democratic primary drew 288,000 voters. Although that is only a little bit more than Republicans got this time, Democrats were competing for votes and attention with a competitive Republican primary. This time there was no contest on the Democratic side and so Republicans should have monopolized turnout among independents and outperformed the Democrats’ numbers from last time.
In 2008 Republicans were at a low point, worn out from the Bush years and its failings. Today they are supposedly energized, as the Democrats were in 2008. But when Democrats were excited to turn the page on the Bush era, they were jamming into events on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton would draw 1,000 attendees to a rally that overflowed a high school gymnasium. Then Obama would draw 2,000 the next day.
The Republican race this time is not like that. Republicans have their own Hillary Clinton—a polarizing veteran of the political battles of the 1990s—in Newt Gingrich. His crowds are in the hundreds and his advance team is a mess, canceling and moving events without warning. Indeed, Republican candidates expect such small turnout that they schedule events in small buildings with low capacities. Then they boast about how it overflowed.
Santorum claimed at Sunday’s NBC debate that his Saturday town hall meeting in Hollis drew 1,200 people, which is a vast overestimate, especially since about one in five attendees were members of the media. A show of hands demonstrated that half the crowd came from out of state. In addition to political tourists, there were a significant number of protesters. Visitors from Massachusetts and Occupy New Hampshire activists frequently pad Republican crowds. On Sunday, the future Republican victor in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney, used a gymnasium at Exeter High School that is half the size of the larger one at the same school that Obama filled in 2008.
Talking to the crowds at the events, roughly half the voters I interviewed remained undecided right up until the night before the primary. That too seemed like a sign of low enthusiasm. They want to beat Obama, but Republicans are simply not that into their candidates.
Perhaps the better analogy to a recent Democratic primary 2008 is 2004. Republicans loathe Obama the way Democrats loathed George W. Bush. But like the Democrats in 2004, Republicans have an imperfect field, led by a tall, lean, stiff, awkward, wealthy patrician from Massachusetts. Romney, like John Kerry before him, has the built-in advantage of having been the next in line. Against fields of weak opponents, both Romney and Kerry won in Iowa and steamrolled through New Hampshire. And Romney, like Kerry, wins over voters largely on an unemotional appeal: Kerry convinced Democrats in Iowa that his military experience meant he was best suited to combat Bush in an election that would hinge largely on national security. In an election year that will be more about the economy, Romney argues that his business background makes him the rational choice. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements that sowed doubts about Kerry’s war record weakened Kerry’s putative biographical advantage considerably. Similarly, Romney’s business experience may prove more of a liability than an asset if the advertisements featuring workers who were laid off from his companies gain traction.
On Tuesday at two polling stations in downtown Concord, just blocks from the State Capitol, the only volunteers were for Ron Paul and John Huntsman. “’That’s because Romney has the money but not the people,” said Deb Johnson, 57, who was holding a Paul sign in the parking lot of the Ward 6 polling station. “The road is lined with signs for him, but that’s because he paid people to put them up.”
Over at Ward 5, one of the largest wards in the state, with over 3,000 registered voters, turnout was slow. Volunteers and poll watchers reported a steady stream of voters but never a line out the door. In 2008, according to Stephanie Leary, a Paul volunteer holding a sign out front who had done the same for John McCain four years ago, there were waits of up to fifteen minutes.
On the Democratic side roughly 54,000 voters came out even though President Obama faced no real opposition. Nearly 49,000 of those votes were cast for Obama, merely to send a message of support for Obama or opposition to the Republicans. If early returns are any indication, Republicans will not benefit from the same “enthusiasm gap” that catapulted them to victory in the 2010 midterms.