Howard County Democrats seeking answers to their poor showing on Election Day don't have to look much farther than the voters registered to their party.

Sizable defections by Democrats apparently helped Republicans capture 12 of 22 seats in county and state legislative offices, including county executive, a review of precinct voting data shows.

For example, Republican Charles I. Ecker received 26,509 votes in his campaign for county executive -- 8,148 votes more than registered Republicans cast in the county this year. Thus, Ecker's 421-vote victory over incumbent Elizabeth Bobo was largely the result of his strength among registered Democrats.

The data debunk the suggestion by officials from both parties that Republicans were more effective than Democrats in getting their voters to the polls.

Turnout by party nearly matched 1986 levels, although Republican registration efforts helped the GOP draw about 3,300 voters closer to the Democrats since 1986. Democrats still hold a 10,200-voter margin over Republicans out of about 52,000 voters.

"Apparently, Democrats were as ready to put people out as Republicans. A big part of that was the anti-incumbent sentiment out there," said Lloyd Knowles, a Democrat who lost to a pair of incumbent Republican state delegates.

As a challenger, perhaps Knowles should have been able to capitalize on the mood of the voters, but he said Democrats in general were slow to catch on.

"Obviously, {the election} showed how important it is to ride the wave when the wave comes," Knowles said. "The Republicans were prepared and positioned to take advantage of the high anti-incumbent feeling . . . . It became a very popular idea very quickly."

Republican Donna Thewes, a North Laurel civic activist, said anti-incumbent sentiment was particularly strong in the southeast corner of the county.

"People here have not had a lot of say in what happens in our area. We have constantly had to fight the county government to get things," she said.

As a result, County Executive Bobo paid the price.

"We wanted somebody who will listen to us," Thewes said.

The GOP did not hold a single office in the county before 1982. And it held just three local seats before this year's election. Its wins Nov. 6 came despite the fact that more Democrats than Republicans voted in 63 of 68 precincts.

A precinct-by-precinct summary of votes by party was released Friday by the county's Board of Elections. The precinct numbers do not include absentee ballots and ballots that were difficult to read. They also do not tell how Democrats and Republicans voted.

But the summary surprised Republicans nonetheless because they expected to see Republican turnout at least match the Democratic turnout. Instead, party turnout varied little from the 1986 election, with about 59 percent, or 28,581 of 48,234 registered Democrats voting compared with 53 percent, or 18,361 of 34,767 registered Republicans. Similarly, in 1986, turnout was 60 percent for Democrats and 52 percent for Republicans..

"I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what happened," said the county's Republican Party chairman, Carol A. Arscott. "But it is a lot more fun trying to analyze it from the winning side."

Thirty-six percent more Republicans voted this year compared with 1986 while only 6 percent more Democrats voted. Voters declaring themselves independent or members of other parties cast 4,918 votes, a 23 percent increase from 1986.

"In a close race, a few votes here and there count," said Brad Coker, a Columbia pollster who worked for county Republican candidates.

Coker said Republicans broke through this year in part because they delivered a message "that was not tailored for anyone in particular. We were delivering a message to everyone."

The strategy tied Democrats, by virtue of their years in power in the county, to concerns over government spending and worries about congested roads and crowded schools brought on by the county's growth.

"Having a unified message probably helped the Republicans," Coker said. "But it is not unusual in this county for Democrats outside Columbia to vote for Republicans. They often do in presidential elections.

"Columbia is an oddity," Coker said. "You won't find many new communities with such strong Democratic liberal tendencies."

GOP Chairman Arscott estimated that the core Republican vote -- those voters who will vote for party candidates most of the time -- increased from about 36 percent in 1986 to 43 percent this year.

Still, "with the results we got this year, it's sometimes hard to remember that we are still the minority party," Arscott said.