Republican mobilization efforts, including President Bush's almost nonstop travels in the closing days of the campaign, boosted overall voter turnout in Tuesday's elections even as the number of voters declined in some traditionally strong Democratic areas, according to an analysis of the returns.
A total of 78.7 million votes were cast on Tuesday, a turnout of 39.3 percent of all voting age citizens, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, an independent elections expert. That was a slight increase from the 37.6 percent turnout in the previous midterm elections, in 1998, and interrupted a steady decline in voter participation, he said.
But Gans said the increase in voter turnout was uneven.
"The Republicans got their vote out better than the Democrats," he said. "The Democrats lost votes nationally, and the Republicans gained votes. The Republicans did nationalize the vote. As far as I can see, the Democrats tried to raise the economy as an issue but offered no program."
The pattern that boosted GOP candidates in key races could be seen in Florida, where the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, withstood a furious Democratic assault, and in Maryland, where the Democrats lost the governorship for the first time in 36 years.
After the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, Democrats vowed revenge against Jeb Bush for his role in the ballot recount battle there, which eventually delivered the presidency to his brother. Nowhere did feelings run higher than in the South Florida Democratic bastions of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which were at the center of the recount storm.
But on Tuesday, voter turnout in two of those counties declined even as the statewide turnout increased to 53.6 percent -- 4 percent more than in the previous gubernatorial election, in 1998. Democrat Bill McBride carried Palm Beach County, where turnout slipped from 52.7 percent in 1998 to 45.8 percent, and Broward County, where it plunged from 45.6 percent to 34.5 percent, the lowest turnout there in at least three decades.
Turnout increased in Miami-Dade County, from 47.7 percent in 1998 to 52.9 percent on Tuesday. But Jeb Bush carried Miami-Dade just as he did most of the rest of the state, including McBride's home county of Hillsborough, where the turnout rose from 50.7 percent to 59.5 percent.
It was the same story in Maryland, where the statewide turnout was down slightly from 1998. Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend carried only three jurisdictions, but they were the populous Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the city of Baltimore.
But in all three, the turnout was down compared with the turnout in the previous gubernatorial election, in 1998. It slipped from 64.4 percent to 60.7 percent in Montgomery County, from 59.6 percent to 52.4 percent in Prince George's County and from 55.9 percent to 53.4 percent in Baltimore.
Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. swept the rest of the state, including his home base of Baltimore County, where the turnout increased from 61 percent in 1998 to 65.6 percent on Tuesday.
According to Gans, 30 states had higher voter turnouts on Tuesday than they did in the 1998 elections. The highest turnouts, more than 61 percent of voting age citizens, were in Minnesota and South Dakota, traditional high-turnout states that were also the scenes of heated battles for Senate seats. Only in those two states and in Maine and Vermont did turnouts exceed 50 percent.
Officials in several states said they have not had time to analyze voting and turnout trends.
Spence Jackson, a spokesman for Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R), said the turnout appeared to be slightly greater in rural parts of the state than in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas.
Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D), said voting was heavy in suburban Republican strongholds around Atlanta, but was also high in the Democratic bastion of DeKalb County, providing no obvious explanation for the GOP's success in the state, where Republicans were the upset winners of a Senate seat and the governorship.
Gans said the overall increase in voter turnout was due to several high-profile races and "the mobilization efforts at the grass-roots level that were done in those states." Still, he said, turnout continues to decline, with occasional interruptions, such as the one this year.
The turnout of voters in 2002 was 20 percent lower than the turnout in midterm elections in the 1960s, Gans said. In states outside the South, where turnout has increased largely due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other efforts to enfranchise black voters, the turnout was 25 percent below the levels of the 1960s, he said.
"I don't think [Tuesday's turnout] speaks to any permanent reversal," Gans said. "We had some very peculiar conditions this year. Both houses of Congress were at stake and enormous resources were poured into those races and, still, in some states turnout went down. You would expect an uptick in all the close races. We didn't get that."