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Primary turnout shows big GOP enthusiasm edge

By Aaron Blake

Three-quarters of the way through the 2010 primary season, the so-called "enthusiasm gap" appears to be playing out across the country with turnout in GOP contests exceeding previous highs and beating Democratic turnout by unprecedented margins in many targeted states.

Polling has routinely showed Republicans much more enthusiastic about voting in the 2010 election than Democrats. A Gallup poll last week showed twice as many Republicans (46 percent) say they are "very enthusiastic" about voting as Democrats (23 percent).

Raw voter data backs up the polling. A three million-voter advantage for Democrats in the 2006 midterm primaries has turned into a three million-voter overall advantage for the GOP now. And numbers compiled by Republicans show the percentage of voters taking part in GOP primaries has reached a two-decade high in more than half of the 37 states holding primaries so far this year.

There are still more voters voting in the Democratic primary in several major states, but compared to recent years, the GOP is closing the gap significantly even in many of these states.

Much of that advantage could be chalked up to the fact that Republicans have many more competitive primaries, as Democrats did in 2006. But even in states where both parties have held competitive statewide governor or Senate primaries this year, Republicans are taking significantly larger chunks of voters than they have in recent years.

The Fix analyzed the turnout in several key states which featured competitive governor or Senate primaries on both sides. We then compared it to previous years; the relative 2010 GOP turnout was higher in almost every case.

Here's a breakdown:

* In Illinois, Republican turnout in the February 2010 primaries was 46 percent of the total vote in the governor primary and 45 percent of the vote in the modestly competitive Senate primary, even as both races had to compete with much higher-profile Democratic primaries. Comparatively, GOP turnout was just 35 percent of the primary vote in 2004, when President Obama won an open Senate seat, and 42 percent when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) won his first term as governor in 2002.

* In Michigan, Republicans made up an astounding 66 percent of the vote, even though both sides featured very competitive gubernatorial primaries. Republicans were 59 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential primary, but even that number was artificially high because Democrats weren't allowed to vote for Obama in the Democratic primary. (He wasn't on the ballot.)

* In South Carolina, Republicans in a four-way governor's primary won by state Rep. Nikki Haley comprised 69 percent of the total vote. Republicans were 46 percent of the vote in competitive 2008 presidential primaries and 64 percent of the vote when Gov. Mark Sanford (R) faced a modestly competitive 2006 renomination battle.

* In Georgia, Republican turnout was 63 percent of the total vote in the governor's primary, where the GOP battle was, notably, much closer than former Gov. Roy Barnes's Democratic primary win. Still, the relative GOP turnout was more than 10 points higher than it was in both the 2008 presidential primary and the open Senate race won by Johnny Isakson (R) in 2004.

* In Arkansas, a modestly competitive GOP Senate primary didn't turn out near as many voters as Sen. Blanche Lincoln's (D-Ark.) near-death experience in her primary; GOP turnout was just 30 percent of the total vote. But Arkansas is a heavily Democratic (if conservative) state by registration, and that 30 percent share was still far higher than in any non-presidential primary turnout for the GOP in at least two decades.

* In Kentucky, the competitive GOP Senate primary between Rand Paul and Trey Grayson comprised 40 percent of the vote. Republican voters were 36 percent and 37 percent of the vote, respectively, when there were competitive primaries on both sides in the 2003 and 2007 governor's races.

* In Oklahoma, Republicans set a new high for overall turnout and were 49 percent of the total primary vote, even as the Democratic side featured a more competitive race won by Lt. Gov. Jari Askins. The relative GOP turnout was higher than the 45 percent of voters Republicans made up in the 2008 presidential primary.

* In Connecticut, Republicans were 40 percent of the vote in competitive gubernatorial primaries, after they were 30 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential primaries.

While most states show a GOP turnout surge, there are places where that didn't pan out, for whatever reason:

* GOP turnout was slightly down in Oregon, where Republicans usually make up just less than half the primary vote. They were 46 percent of the turnout in the state's open governor's race, even though former NBA player Chris Dudley's GOP primary win was closer -- and more tightly fought -- than the Democratic race.

* There aren't many races in recent years to which we can compare this year's competitive governor primaries in Maine, but the relative GOP turnout was actually lower than it was in the 2000 presidential primaries and slightly less than the open 1996 Senate race won by Susan Collins (R).

Democrats also point out that, even if Republicans turn out more voters than before, Democratic turnout was still much higher overall in several states mentioned above: Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky and Connecticut. Six competitive Senate and gubernatorial contests are being held in those four states.

Democrats have been investing much more in their field program this year, with Democratic committees sending more money than their Republican counterparts to state parties across the country. That gap is likely to grow as the committee traditionally in charge of GOP turnout -- the Republican National Committee -- struggles to run a financially viable 2010 campaign. (The RNC ended July with just $5 million on hand.)

Still, an enthusiasm gap as pronounced as the one that appears to be working in Republicans favor in the primary season to date has the potential to swamp the money that Democrats can spend. To that end, Republicans have to be pleased with the primary returns to date.

By Aaron Blake  | August 23, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, Senate  
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