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GOP Turnout: Myths and Reality

by on November 23, 2012

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Republicans slammed Mitt Romney for not being able to match the popular vote totals of John McCain, but many forgot that the full totals in the popular vote take a few weeks to finalize.  This past week, Romney’s totals surpassed McCain’s in an election that had a smaller overall turnout, Kimberly Strassel reports for the Wall Street Journal — and Romney did significantly better in swing states than the GOP did in 2008 as well (via Scott Johnson at Power Line):

Mr. Romney beat Mr. McCain’s numbers in every single battleground, save Ohio. In some cases, his improvement was significant. In Virginia, 65,000 more votes than in 2008. In Florida, 117,000 more votes. In Colorado, 52,000. In Wisconsin, 146,000. Moreover, in key states like Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia, Mr. Romney turned out even more voters than George W. Bush did in his successful re-election in 2004.

By contrast, Mr. Obama’s turnout was down from 2008 in nearly every battleground. He lost 54,000 votes in Virginia, 46,000 votes in Florida, 50,000 votes in Colorado, 63,000 votes in Wisconsin. Ditto Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio. The only state where Mr. Obama increased his votes (by 36,000) was North Carolina, and he was still beaten by a Romney campaign that raised its own turnout by a whopping 147,000.

The notion of an enthusiasm gap among Republicans compared to 2008 is therefore a myth, one suggested by incomplete data the day after the election.  So what happened?  Did Romney just run out of time, or was Obama’s downturn just short of bad enough to lose?  Not exactly, Strassel argues.  The demographic data shows that Democrats boosted voter turnout where it counted, and where Republicans didn’t bother to seriously compete:

Because what ought to scare the GOP is this: Even with higher GOP turnout in key states, even with Mr. Obama shedding voters, Democrats still won. Mr. Obama accomplished this by tapping new minority voters in numbers that beat even Mr. Romney’s better turnout.

In Florida, 238,000 more Hispanics voted than in 2008, and Mr. Obama got 60% of Hispanic voters. His total margin of victory in Florida was 78,000 votes, so that demographic alone won it for him. Or consider Ohio, where Mr. Romney won independents by 10 points. The lead mattered little, though, given that black turnout increased by 178,000 votes, and the president won 96% of the black vote. Mr. Obama’s margin of victory there was 103,000. …

Republicans right now are fretting about Mr. Romney’s failures and the party’s immigration platform—that’s fair enough. But equally important has been the party’s mind-boggling failure to institute a competitive Hispanic ground game. The GOP doesn’t campaign in those communities, doesn’t register voters there, doesn’t knock on doors. So while pre-election polling showed that Hispanics were worried about Obama policies, in the end the only campaign that these voters heard from—by email, at their door, on the phone—was the president’s.

In order to win national elections, Republicans have to compete in all communities. That doesn’t mean pandering, but it does mean putting free-market, small-government philosophies and slogans into concrete policy proposals that will improve the lives of voters.  It’s not enough to talk about empowering investors to take risk in the American economy; we need to talk about how we can encourage that investment to go into urban centers to revitalize neighborhoods and create jobs.  We need to commit to school choice and educational reform, in combination with a shift in control away from federal mandates (and the costly administration they require) to the local school boards and parents.  We have to have specific policy proposals on the table and the commitment to follow through on them.

Until we remember what Jack Kemp figured out two decades ago, we will never compete for those votes, and end up with a massive handicap in national elections.

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