Op-Ed: Low Primary Turnouts Bode Ill for GOP


By Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz

Mitt Romney’s tepid victory in his home state of Michigan this week was so narrow that he’ll have to split that state’s delegates almost evenly with Rick Santorum.

Beyond learning that the Republican party is still deeply divided, there is another lesson emerging that should serve as a warning sign to whoever is the nominee:  too many Republican voters are staying home.

In most of the GOP primaries this year, Republican turnout has been abysmally low.

Michigan joins other states where GOP turnout was lower than it was four years ago.  In fact, compared to 2008, Republican turnout this year was down 11% in Iowa, down 14% in Florida, down 23% in Minnesota and down 26% in Nevada.  This, despite 20 Republican debates and the most lively GOP primary season in years.

So where’s the enthusiasm?  Simply put, the party may be paying the price for having candidates so far to the right that they are out of touch with mainstream voters, including mainstream Republicans.

Culture wars: The low turnout is indicative that many GOP moderates are feeling alienated. Even conservative columnist David Brooks complained in the New York Times this week that, “All across the nation there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid.”

Of course some analysts say the problem is simply the choice of GOP candidates.  Early in the race, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein coined the phrase, “the Republican Romper Room.”  And Michael Tomasky, writing in The Daily Beast, said, “They’re lousy candidates with no ideas because they’re in a party that doesn’t care about ideas.”

“All these candidates have to do is speak in billboards,” Tomasky added. “Low taxes.  No regulation.  Cut spending.  Death to the EPA.  Build a fence.  Build a higher fence.”

As the leading candidates have talked about contraception, gay rights, religion and even what’s wrong with a college education, they have missed opportunities to talk more about the economy – the one area where President Obama may be vulnerable.

And when they do talk about these cultural issues, they are so far outside the mainstream that the eventual nominee may never be able to move back to the middle, where elections are won.

Not exactly Goldwater: How will that nominee explain all nine Republican candidates standing silently at a debate while a gay solider in Iraq is booed by the audience, simply because he asked an innocent question via YouTube?

Contrast that to the positions of Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, who believed in gay rights and abortion rights, because he felt the true conservative position was that the government should stay out of your bedroom and out of your medical clinic.

National Republicans who have shut-out moderates in their party may pay the same price their brethren have already paid in California.  By alienating Latinos, gays, union workers and independents, California Republicans have seen their registration drop to 30% of the electorate here (a five-point decline since 2003).  That gives California Democrats nearly a 14-point advantage in voter registration.

A Republican moderate like Tom Campbell, who ran in the U.S. Senate primary last time, didn’t stand a chance of getting his party’s nomination.

Many doubt that a moderate like Arnold Schwarzenegger could have won in a normal Republican primary, rather than waltzing-in the back door of a recall campaign.

And here we are, eight months before the next Senate race, and state Republicans have not managed to recruit a single big name candidate to take on Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Not so-Golden State for GOP: It was after that last statewide election that another Republican moderate, former California GOP Chair Duf Sundheim, pronounced, “Republicans, as a brand, are dead.”

Ironically, the Republicans who are left here in the Golden State may actually have a voice in the Presidential primary race,  since it appears it won’t be decided anytime soon.  Our June 5th primary may count, especially when you consider our state’s 172 GOP delegates make-up 15% of the total needed to be nominated.

When the Republican candidates arrive in California, they’ll find a state so moderate that this week’s Field Poll finds gay marriage is favored here by 25 points.  Whether those candidates adapt to our reality, or whether they continue to pander to an extremist segment of their base, remains to be seen.

Hank Plante, Palm Springs Bureau Chief for Calbuzz, is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who has spent three decades covering California politics.

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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    The question for me is how such a right-wing Republican constituency came into being in the first place. I know the candidates have to pander to Neanderthals, but how did the Republican Party come to be steered by such uncompromising hard-right-wingers who seem to be living in their own fairyland?

  2. avatar Silent Sleuth says:

    It appears to me that after the foreign policy/economic devastation of the Bush years and then the embarrassing loss by McCain – due to his own stupidity, in part – the bench was pretty thin. Romney was next up and had the bucks, but since he wasn’t a racist or evangelical, they had to field a bunch of those folks too. Those righties really hate Obama and they really hate having that particular family living in the WH. After the Bachman-Perry-Cain show, they’re lucky they ended up with the final 3 they’ve got left in the batting circle. They’re probably sending Bobby Jindal to Spring Training right now.

  3. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    Hank Plante, at least a derived Lefty, is projecting the California Republican doom (on which he is accurate) onto the whole country. Unfortunately for Mr. Plante, the country is not like the Left coast or New England. National Republican registration is up 8% points. Outside New England and the coastal West, Obama is either losing in the states or in a dog fight for a November win. In 2012 the House elections lean net Republican and the U.S. Senate is leaning Republican. Republicans are in good shape nationally or at least in a very competitive shape.

    As to Plante and the commenters whining about outmoded conservative thought, that’s to be expected. For good…that is what we are and practice…so se la guerre.

    And as to former California GOP Chair Duf Sundheim, and his claim, “Republicans, as a brand, are dead” he may be trying to mislead. For your information this is the same Sundheim sell-out who, as our GOP state chairman, would not hold a requested joint newsconference with me in 2004 on my incumbent Democrat Assembly member opponent who was up on Assembly ethics violation charges. Unbelievable but true! That was just one of five things in which he as Chairman refused me his candidate support.

  4. avatar Alan from Berkeley says:

    Ernie, I noticed that your post didn’t mention women, the latest group the GOP presidential candidates have made a special effort to alienate.

    Over half of registered Republicans are women, and the large majority of those have used birth control for reasons other than to indulge their sluttish instincts. Some of them are actually sex-positive, and enjoy having some control. Apparently that thought is just too threatening for candidates with orthodox Catholic or Mormon heritages.

    Who’s left to trash? Maybe next are the “selfish and indulgent” retired white folks who should feel ashamed for depending on a government social-security check — that would pretty much cover the rest of the GOP demographic.

    Republicans won’t win many races by insulting the morals of even their own constituencies.

  5. avatar stevefromsacto says:

    Sad, sad, sad, Ernie. You are wrong on so many levels.

    1. President Obama’s approval rating is over 50 percent; the economy is starting to come back; he’s shown his foreign policy toughness on everything from Iran to Osama; and the Republicans have handed him the women’s vote on a silver platter thanks to Rush & company.

    2. Here in California, the Republicans continue to pander to the right-wing of their party year after year, instead of reaching out to the moderates and independents who decide elections. And year after year, they lose. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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