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.