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Enthusiasm gap


In early 2011, conventional wisdom dictated that Mitt Romney would win the GOP presidential nomination, as Republicans have always chosen the establishment candidate — the “next guy in line.”

Yet it seemed like 2012 might be different. Would a Tea Party-dominated GOP really nominate the formerly pro-gay rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-cap-and-trade Massachusetts politician who ran to the left of Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994 and who provided the blueprint for President Obama’s signature healthcare law? 

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Apparently, the answer is yes. The Tea Party proved itself ineffective, irrelevant and co-opted this primary cycle, while a series of not-Mitt wannabe candidates failed miserably. Of course, South Carolina and Florida might extend this thing a little bit longer, but it looks like Republicans will nominate a guy who has literally been on both sides of every major issue. 

Still, while Romney looks set to ratify the early conventional wisdom, his low-energy, low-support path to the nomination hints at big problems down the road. 

In 2008, Romney won 30,021 caucus votes in Iowa. Four years later, after countless campaign appearances and millions of dollars, he got fewer votes, 30,015. And that’s against opponents who systematically self-destructed over the previous months. 

The GOP field itself simply didn’t generate much excitement. In 2008, 119,188 Republicans cast caucus votes in Iowa. In 2012, just 122,255 turned up — in a year in which conservatives are supposedly fired up to defeat Obama! To see what real excitement looks like, one only has to look at the 239,000 Iowans who cast votes in the 2008 Democratic caucus. (The latest figures from the Iowa secretary of state’s office list 103,261 registered Republicans, and 132,786 registered Democrats.)

And if you subtract the large percentage of Ron Paul’s supporters who aren’t even Republicans, the numbers look even more dismal for the GOP.

New Hampshire was a little kinder to Romney. He won with 97,600 votes, an improvement over the 75,546 he got in 2008. But New Hampshire Republicans didn’t tear it up at the polls. They drew 248,293 voters last week, just a slight improvement over the 238,979 who participated in 2008. And as there was no contested Democratic primary to compete for independents this year, that small increase in turnout actually represents a tremendous lack of enthusiasm.

Similarly, fundraising data show little excitement outside of Ron Paul’s quixotic campaign. 

Romney raised $56 million in all of 2011, far less than the $69 million George W. Bush raised all the way back in 1999 — without any adjustments for inflation. That pales in comparison to Obama’s 2011 haul of $128 million. And in 2007, Obama raised $104 million, while Hillary Clinton raised $118 million. 

The key difference, of course, is that Obama and Clinton had significant grassroots support.

While almost half of Obama’s fundraising comes from donors giving less than $200, fewer than 10 percent of Romney’s donors can say the same. That means Obama can keep hitting up those small donors again and again, while Romney needs to keep mining K and Wall streets for new max-out donors. And, of course, Romney has had to spend a hefty chunk of his cash (and that of his super-PAC friends) in order to win his nomination, while Obama gets to hoard.

No matter what data you look at — fundraising numbers or votes cast to date — it’s clear that Romney will have significant challenges matching the grassroots fervor Obama still generates.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).