The Republican primary in South Carolina had record turnout, with bigger gains in voter participation than in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month.
The Jan. 21 South Carolina vote drew 602,000 Republicans, a 35 percent increase over 2008 participation, as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich defeated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the front-runner in national Republican polls. Gingrich received 40 percent of the vote compared with Romney’s 28 percent.
Yet Republicans beat the previous record of 573,000, set in the 2000 primary, in part because there was no Democratic primary and the pool of registered voters is much larger than a dozen years ago. South Carolina increased its voter registration to 2.8 million from 2.1 million in 2000, the last time Republicans had a competitive primary and Democrats didn’t.
“It’s a record that should have fallen, and it did,” Rhodes Cook, a political analyst and editor of The Rhodes Cook Letter, said in a telephone interview.
With Obama unopposed for renomination, South Carolina voters were free to take part in the Republican primary. Voters don’t register by party in South Carolina, which drew about 1 million voters for the 2008 primaries, including 532,000 for the Democratic contest and 445,000 for the Republican race.
“You would expect some turnout increase in the Republican contest because there’s no contested Democratic contest,” Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said in a telephone interview.
Future primaries might show whether Republicans can boost voter turnout outside the South, a Republican-rich region where the party’s nominee will carry most states over Obama in the November election.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said it’s “hard to disentangle why at this point” South Carolina showed the first big turnout boost for Republicans compared to 2008. “I would give some credence to the theory that it’s a Southern thing,” he said, since anti-Obama sentiment is “particularly strong in” South Carolina.
A smaller share of registered voters went to the polls in the Republican primary this year than in 2000, when 27 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In that contest, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush won over Arizona Senator John McCain.
South Carolina increased its voter registration by 700,000 during those dozen years, while the increase in turnout was less than 30,000 votes. About 21.5 percent of voters cast ballots in this year’s Republican contest.
South Carolina voters showed more interest than their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire, where participation was barely higher than in 2008, even though there weren’t Democratic contests this year competing for the attention of independents. Four years ago, then-Senators Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a fight for the Democratic nomination.
This year’s Iowa Republican caucuses drew about 122,000 voters, less than 3 percent higher than in 2008 and a smaller share of the Republican electorate than four years ago.
In New Hampshire, the Republican vote increased by less than 4 percent, to 248,000 from 240,000.
“Republicans have a long way to go before they are generally enthusiastic about their candidates and message,” Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in an e-mail message.
The next gauge of Republicans’ interest will be in Florida, where the Jan. 31 primary will award all 50 of the state’s delegates to the winner. It is the first contest in which only registered Republicans may vote. About 1.95 million Republicans participated in the 2008 primary, in which McCain defeated Romney by 5 percentage points.
Like Iowa and New Hampshire, and unlike South Carolina, Florida is a politically competitive state that will help decide the November election. Obama won Florida over McCain by 3 percentage points in the 2008 election.
After Florida, there will be Republican caucuses in Maine, Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota during the first week of February. Caucuses draw lower voter turnout than primaries and place a higher priority on campaign organization.
Arizona and Michigan have primaries on Feb. 28 and Washington state holds caucuses on March 3. A dozen states hold primaries or caucuses on March 6, known as “Super Tuesday.”