Moments after the polls closed in New Hampshire on January 27, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie declared that President Bush had won 94 percent of the Republican primary vote. It was a dramatic claim. Unfortunately for Gillespie, it was dramatically inaccurate.
When the Associated Press posted the unofficial returns from the GOP primary, it reported that Bush had won a little less than 86 percent of the vote. The fact that almost one out of every seven New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots had apparently cast them for someone other than the party's incumbent president drew little note in major media accounts, but it was intriguing enough to merit mention in this column ("Bush Slips -- Among Republicans," Online Beat, 1-20-2004).
As it turns out, however, the unofficial tally by Associated Press significantly underestimated the collapse in the president's fortunes. According to updated figures from the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, which only today posted a final figure on the total number of ballots cast, only 78 percent of New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots marked them for Bush. (In one New Hampshire town, Milton, Bush received only 48 percent of the vote, while in a number of others he was held below 60 percent of the vote.)
The figures on the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office website (http://www.state.nh.us/sos/electionsnew.htm) show than 69,379 New Hampshire voters cast regular and absentee ballots in the Republican primary. Just 53,962 voted for Bush (78 percent). More than one in five Republican primary voters, 22--percent--chose not to vote for Bush.
Where did the renegade Republican votes go? While roughly ten percent of Republican primary voters statewide backed little-known Republicans whose names appeared on the ballot or simply did not vote, a remarkable 8,288 (12 percent) wrote in the names of leading Democratic presidential contenders.
The Democrat who won the most Republican primary votes was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who got 3,009 write-in votes, for 4.3 percent of the Republican primary total. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean received 1,888 write-in votes for 2.7 percent. Retired General Wesley Clark got 1,467 Republican write-ins for 2.1 percent.
By contrast, Bush received only 257 write-in votes in the Democratic primary, where a total of 220,053 ballots were cast.
How does the level of support for Bush in this year's Republican primary compare with past primaries in which a supposedly popular president faced no serious opposition? Not well. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower won 98.9 percent of the Republican primary vote, according to the New Hampshire Political Library. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won 95.3 percent of the Democratic primary vote. And in 1984 and 1996, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Bill Clinton both secured around 85 percent of the vote in their respective party primaries.
Considering President Bush's less-than-stellar showing in New Hampshire, it should come as little surprise that Republicans in some states have decided to cancel their primaries. In South Carolina, for instance, the state Republican Party's executive committee decided not to hold their state's tradition first-in-the-south primary. They simply endorsed Bush for reelection and agreed to select delegates at district and state Republican Party conventions where, presumably, the president will not have to run the risk of embarrassment at the hands of independent thinking voters.
(Online Beat thanks to a sharp reader, Joe Loy, who alerted us to the shifting New Hampshire Republican primary figures. Thanks also to Paula Penney, an administrative assistant in the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, who explained that it takes time to get a final count because a lot of New Hampshire votes are still cast on traditional paper ballots. Penney says the results that are now posted should be the last official word on what New Hampshire voters think of Bush--until November.)