Iowa Turnout Barely Tops 2008 Number as Voter Enthusiasm Muted

Hours before the Iowa Republican caucuses began, Governor Terry Branstad predicted a record turnout of as many as 140,000 voters eager to “sink” Democratic President Barack Obama this year.

While the Republican turnout of about 122,000 was a record, it was barely higher than in 2008, suggesting that some party voters may be unenthused about their choices. Mitt Romney, who edged Rick Santorum by eight votes, got the lowest percentage of any winning candidate in the history of the caucuses.

The share of registered Republicans who showed up actually declined to 19.9 percent from 21.1 percent in 2008, according to statistics the Iowa secretary of state’s office posted before the Jan. 3 vote.

“Given the Republican enthusiasm for getting rid of the Obama administration and the wind at their backs after the 2010 election, to me that was a disappointing turnout,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.

The outcome signaled that Republican voters “weren’t happy with all the selections on the menu,” said Goldford, co-author of a 2010 book on the caucuses. The 2008 turnout was 118,696.

Branstad, a Republican, had predicted a turnout this year of 130,000 to 140,000, telling CNN: “Iowa launched Obama. I think Iowans want to sink Obama.”

Pale by Comparison

Yet the increase in Republican participation paled in comparison to the explosion in Democratic voters in the 2008 caucuses. Democratic turnout rose to about 240,000 four years ago, aided by the political organization of the Obama campaign, from about 125,000 in 2004. That was twice the Republican total this year, even though there was only one contest in Iowa this time around.

Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said the Democratic surge in 2008 was mostly because “we were coming off eight years of a Republican presidency, it was a close contest” and Obama excited so many voters because of his youth and race.

For Iowa Republicans this year, he said, “A larger than usual number of people were still undecided or persuadable right up until caucus night.” He said he isn’t sure the level of voter participation “matters all that much to the Republicans.”

Losing Most Counties

A review of the vote, including an entrance poll of 1,787 respondents conducted by Edison Research for CNN and other news organizations, shows that Romney lost in most of the state’s counties, although he captured major population centers. He did poorly among evangelicals, Tea Party backers and young voters.

The former Massachusetts governor, waging his second campaign for the White House, prevailed over Santorum even as he won a smaller share of the vote than four years ago. His victory was the narrowest in the history of the modern Iowa caucuses, and his 24.6 percent vote was the lowest share for a winner, just below Bob Dole’s 26 percent in 1996.

Romney, 64, ran behind his 2008 Iowa performance by less than a percentage point and carried just 17 of 99 counties, though he won all six counties that cast the most overall votes.

This group includes Polk County, home to the state capital of Des Moines and with the most registered Republicans. Romney beat Santorum in Polk by 28 percent to 22 percent, a near-mirror image of his loss to Mike Huckabee there in 2008. About 27.5 percent of Polk Republicans participated in the caucus, the second-highest total.

Romney Prevails

Romney also prevailed in Dallas County, a fast-growing suburb of Des Moines that had the highest turnout rate, and in Story County, which takes in Ames north of Des Moines and had the third-highest turnout rate.

“Fewer counties but more-populous counties, that’s what makes the difference.” Goldford said of Romney’s performance.

Santorum, 53, won backing from many of the 57 percent of voters who described themselves to pollsters as born-again or evangelical Christians. Santorum, a staunch opponent of abortion, won about one-third of that voter bloc.

Santorum won many of the same counties as Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor who also attracted support from evangelicals. Santorum won by 8 percentage points in Iowa’s fifth congressional district, a swath of mostly rural and culturally conservative voters in western Iowa.

Though Santorum won 63 of 99 counties, many of his victories came in lightly populated areas.

Turnout also tended to be lower in pro-Santorum counties than in Romney territory. In Lyon County, tucked in Iowa’s northwestern corner, Santorum won a statewide high of 61 percent and Romney got 7 percent. Yet, just 540 voters, or 10.5 percent of registered Republicans, participated in the caucuses.

Paul Doubles Support

Third-place finisher Ron Paul, a Texas congressman seeking the Republican nomination for the second consecutive election, more than doubled his support from four years ago, to 21 percent from 10 percent.

Paul, 76, was favored by younger voters, many of them independents and Democrats who shared his libertarian instincts and were permitted to vote in the caucuses after re-registering as Republicans.

Paul increased his vote share to 31 percent from 15 percent in Johnson County, which includes the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and to 26 percent from 12 percent in Story, which includes Iowa State University in Ames. He finished second in both counties.

Transcendental Meditation

Paul won a statewide high of 49 percent in Jefferson County, which includes a school for transcendental meditation in Fairfield. Paul is an opponent of most U.S. military action abroad. Jefferson was the only county Paul won in 2008, when he finished fifth overall. Paul won 17 counties yesterday, including some in eastern Iowa that Romney won four years ago.

The other candidates didn’t demonstrate much appeal anywhere in the state. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth with 13 percent, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was fifth with 10 percent, topped 20 percent of the vote in just four counties. Perry won two and Gingrich didn’t win any.

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota withdrew from the race yesterday after winning just 5 percent of the vote and 6,073 votes.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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