Voters just not that into you

Hate the player, not the game. It’s increasingly difficult to remember that changes made to the presidential primary calendar by the Democratic and Republican parties were supposed to be a good thing, giving more voters a say in the presidential nominating process. The idea was that engaging a broader group of Americans from diverse cultural, regional, economic and ethnic backgrounds would slow down the process and ensure a more thorough vetting of candidates who would be battle-tested for the general election. Also, candidates who didn’t have a lot of money would continue to have a fighting chance so that ultimately people, not billionaires and outside groups, would be the source of a campaign’s strength. And engaging more people would be good for party-building, as new voters were identified, energized and registered by the campaigns, thus building the party database and infrastructure ahead of the general election. 

While it was a long, and at times ugly, process, most would argue that in the end, the 2008 Democratic primary contest between now-President Obama and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a good thing for our party and our nominee. Democratic voter registration and turnout increased throughout the primary; in the 28 states that registered voters according to party affiliation in 2008, some 2 million more Democrats were added to the rolls, while the GOP actually lost 344,000 voters in those same states. A report from the Kennedy School also found that overall, Democrats saw a 19 percent turnout rate, setting records in 27 of the 39 Democratic primaries. The GOP turnout rate was 11.1 percent in its nominating contest, “about the same as the GOP average since 1984, excluding 2004, when turnout was very low because of George W. Bush’s unopposed run for the party’s nomination.” Throughout the process, both candidates and their campaigns were forced to improve and work harder to earn votes. They were able to do so while maintaining high marks with voters. Pollster.com reported strong favorable/unfavorable ratings in August 2008 for Clinton (57/40), Obama (60/35) and John McCain (60/35). 

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This time, the extended calendar has deepened ideological divides within the GOP, revealing a weakened message in a changing America. Four in 10 adults say the nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than 1 in 10 with a more favorable opinion; Romney’s negatives are increasing, and at a 28/39 favorable/unfavorable ratio, he’s significantly worse off than Obama (51/28) and McCain (47/27) were in 2008. Numerous polls show voter dissatisfaction in a process designed to increase voter participation. Instead, voters seem to be using the process to make their voices heard by not showing up. As the Bipartisan Policy Center and American University Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported last week, eight of the 13 states that held Republican primaries had lower turnouts than four years ago. The five states that did have a higher turnout than in 2008 — South Carolina, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio and New Hampshire — all allowed independents, Democrats or both groups to vote in Republican primaries. Turnout was also lower in these states than in 2000, when Bush defeated McCain for the GOP nomination. 

It’s not the calendar that has prevented any of the candidates from sealing the deal or winning among a truly diverse swath of Republican voters. Not even the dramatic increases in outside spending that have propped up candidates long past their “due” date have been able to drown out Republican voters’ dissatisfaction. 

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.



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