Election apathy: Is this the new normal?

at 09:56 PM ET, 03/13/2012

What if Republicans held a presidential primary and no one paid attention? We may learn the answer to that question tonight as votes in Alabama and Mississippi are drawing nowhere near the level of coverage that past primaries and caucuses have attracted.

Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich campaigns at the Wiregrass Museum of Art on March 10, 2012 in Dothan, Alabama. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Neither MSNBC nor Fox News Channel are in full election mode for the evening, choosing instead to largely keep with their standard prime time programming. (Disclaimer: The Fix is a paid contributor at MSNBC.) And the vote counting in both Southern states is inching along, making it more likely than not that the winners won’t be known until well after most people — at least on the East Coast — head to bed. (Alabama was projected for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by NBC News just before 10 p.m. eastern time.)

If interest in the race is indeed waning at the national level, it’s somewhat understandable. Ever since the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the Republican presidential race — and the coverage of the contest — has been something akin to an all-out sprint. You can only sprint for so long before you start to get tired. Add to that the negative tenor of the race, and it’s possible that a combination of exhaustion and disgust has combined to lessen interest in the race among a broad audience.

A dip in interest in the race would almost certainly work to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s benefit. Why? Because there is already a large percentage of Republicans who expect Romney to be the nominee whether or not they support his candidacy.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 74 percent of Republicans tested said Romney will be their party’s nominee as compared to just 11 percent who named former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and four percent who opted for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

If the number of people playing close attention to the GOP race drops, Romney is quite clearly already the default nominee in most Republicans’ minds.

Santorum, on the other hand, badly needs the race to be front and center in the news; if the oxygen starts disappearing from the race, Santorum’s chances of pulling the upset over Romney decrease drastically.

Time will tell — Illinois, a big state, votes March 20 — whether apathy regarding the Republican race has truly set in. If it has, it’s terrific news for Romney’s chances of winding up as the nominee.

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