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Obama may have a turnout problem, too

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Much has been written about how turnout in Republican presidential contests has been down from four years ago, but what about Democrats? President Obama (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A review of the states that have also held Democratic contests this year shows turnout is down sharply from the last time a Democratic president was running largely unopposed for renomination — 1996.

Democratic turnout is down significantly in five of eight states that held similar contests in 1996 and 2012 (and where data are available), and six of eight overall, compared to Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

Turnout in Ohio, New Hampshire, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee is down at least 29 percent from 16 years ago, and in Massachusetts, it was down 8 percent, according to a Fix review. (The Iowa numbers are based on estimates, since Democrats don’t tally total votes for their caucuses.)

Turnout is up more than one-third in two states so far, Georgia and Michigan.

The two states where it has gone up are somewhat special cases. In Michigan, where turnout was up 37 percent from 1996, Clinton wasn’t on the ballot that year, and in Georgia, where turnout was up 46 percent, the state’s population has grown by about a third over the same span. (By comparison, GOP turnout in Georgia was up 61 percent from 1996.)

The numbers paint a picture that might lead some to ask whether Democrats are also facing an enthusiasm gap.

It should be noted that comparing turnout numbers to past elections isn’t an exact science — and especially when looking at an election held 16 years prior. There are many variables that are difficult to account for, and the comparison is never apples-to-apples.

But the numbers do lend credence to the idea that Democrats are also not terribly excited about voting in this year’s presidential election.

President Obama’s campaign has long emphasized its ground game as a potential difference-maker in the 2012 election. And his campaign has been active in some early states trying to fire up the base, despite the lack of a contested primary.

In Michigan, for example, Obama’s campaign ran an ad in advance of that state’s primary Feb. 28. And in Iowa, he appeared via webcast at the Jan. 3 caucuses.

The Iowa numbers aren’t official, but party leaders in 1996 reportedly estimated turnout at about 50,000, while this year, they estimated it at around 25,000 — a dropoff of half.

Democrats have argued this year that their turnout estimate in 1996 might have been high, but other states have shown similar — if less severe — dropoffs.

In New Hampshire and Tennessee, turnout was down by about one-third. In Ohio, it was down about 29 percent. And in Oklahoma (a state that has turned sharply against the Democratic Party over that 16-year span), turnout was down 69 percent.

In Massachusetts, the dropoff was 8 percent.

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, pointed to the GOP’s turnout problems, saying they are more a reflection of the race ahead.

“Reports of the vaunted GOP enthusiasm gap turned out not to be true,” LaBolt said. “Republican turnout is down from 2008, a year in which they were not victorious, in key states from Florida to Iowa to Nevada. Without any opponent on the ballot, President Obama got more votes than any Republican candidate in Ohio and our supporters have played a critical effort in races across the country this past year from North Carolina to Arizona. The Republicans are betting they can win this election by carpet-bombing the airwaves. We’re building the largest grass-roots campaign in history and there’s no doubt that we’ll have the decisive edge on the ground in November.”

(A note on Ohio: Clinton also got more of the vote there than any GOP candidate in 1996. Of course, he went on to win reelection.)

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