This post has been updated.
Voters fanned out to the polls across Virginia on Tuesday to make their pick in the Republican presidential contest, and turnout appeared to be light.
Only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) qualified for the Virginia ballot, robbing the contest of much of the suspense and competitiveness that prevail in other states on Super Tuesday. Romney is expected to win by a wide margin.
“We don’t have any big numbers to report. We had one precinct call in a little while ago to say that they’d only had two people come through,” she said.
Brown said the two-man field might be discouraging some voters from heading to the polls.
“People who are paying attention to the reports in the news media figure there’s no sense in going out,” Brown said. “It’s unfortunate.”
In the 2008 presidential primary, Loudoun saw a 32 percent turnout rate county-wide, Brown said. Of the roughly 52,000 voters who came to the polls that year, about 35,000 were Democrats, she added; only 17,000 Republicans cast ballots.
“But I’m not even sure we’re going to make 17,000 this time, to be honest,” she said.
By early afternoon Tuesday, two Leesburg precincts that generally boast the highest turnout numbers had seen less than 3 percent of their registered voters. At Cool Spring Elementary, a half hour passed without a voter passing through the quiet gymnasium. And at Ida Lee Park, Leesburg resident Sandi Brown-McCullough emerged alone from the polling booth, leaving an empty room behind her.
Brown-McCullough, an Independent, said she was disappointed to see such low turnout in what she feels is an important primary election.
She also said she was “not happy” to support any of the potential Republican candidates.
“I am an economic conservative, but I am not conservative socially, and there are things about the Republican candidates’ social views that really distress me,” she said.
Brown-McCullough said she liked Ron Paul the most of the GOP candidates, but she cast her ballot for Romney strictly because he is “the most electable,” she said.
As a chill wind blew off the Potomac River just blocks away, a steady but small stream of voters ebbed and flowed into the Alexandria City Hall precinct at midday.
Charles Pearcy, 75, a retired military officer who supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said he has turned to the Republicans because he likes Romney’s competence and leadership.
“He’s been a governor. He saved the Winter Olympics,” Pearcy said. “Although I admire the president, I think Mitt Romney has more experience with these large organizations.”
Tony Coopersmith, 67, an engineer who is active in the citizens’ group opposing Alexandria’s waterfront plan, said he too voted for Romney.
“He’s not as divisive as the other (Republicans).... and he has a reasonable track record. He’s smooth, knowledgeable,” Coopersmith said. “He’s a quick study in the same way as Barack Obama. I think people who are in business are used to doing long-term planning. We work for stability and predictability over time.”
Virginia’s primary process does not limit primary voters to those who swear allegiance to a particular party, so Roger Lathbury, 66, a George Mason English professor, owner of the Orchises Press and a dedicated Democrat, also turned up at the City Hall polling place Tuesday.
“I think President Obama has done a wonderful job and has been unfairly maligned, so I voted for Ron Paul because I think he’ll beat him easily,” Lathbury said. “Like W.C. Fields once said, ‘I never vote for, I only vote against.’ ”
Lathbury said his life and the national political scene will improve if Obama wins because of the “the mere absence of idiot political bickering. I think the Republicans will be more subdued and there’s a chance Obama will get some measures through the House.”
In Richmond, protesters expected to greet Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, when they voted for Romney on Tuesday morning at a historic train station. But the McDonnells moved up their voting time by nearly two hours, avoiding demonstrators who oppose legislation pending in the General Assembly that they say chips away at abortion rights. He said his schedule changed, and that the switch had nothing to do with the protesters.
McDonnell said he spoke to Romney last week after his win in Michigan. He expects Romney to have a successful day, winning in Idaho, Massachusetts and Virginia, and being competitive in Ohio and Georgia.
“I believe he’s the right leader at the right time to fix some of the problems that ail our great country,’’ McDonnell told reporters after he voted. “More and more it’s becoming clear that Mitt Romney is the best candidate for the Republican Party. ... More and more conservative leaders are coming out and saying we’ve got to get this done.”
McDonnell and his wife were the seventh and eighth people to vote at the Main Street Station, in a commercial strip just a few blocks down from the Executive Mansion. Election officials say 1,037 people are registered to vote at the precinct, though no one voted in the next hour.
McDonnell said he was “disappointed” by the low turnout in Virginia, where ex-senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) failed to qualify for the ballot. Virginia Republicans use primary voter lists to identity potential GOP voters for fall elections.
“If we had four candidates it would certainly be more competitive,’’ McDonnell said. But he said the Republican nominee would still be competitive in Virginia against President Obama, who won the state in 2008.
After the McDonnells left, about a dozen protesters gathered outside the building. They carried hand-made signs that said “Hi. I’m Bob McDonnell. I’m not a doctor but I play one in the Virginia State House.’’
Virginia has been in the national spotlight in recent weeks for some of its antiabortion legislation. Several bills have died during the 60-day session — including those that sought to define a fertilized egg as a person, deny state-funded abortions to poor women with grossly deformed fetuses and ban abortions after 20 weeks. But at least one — requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion — is on McDonnell’s desk after being amended to no longer mandate a transvaginal procedure. He has until the end of the week to sign the bill.
Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield of Powhatan said she was disappointed but not surprised that McDonnell voted earlier than expected. “I don’t think he wants to face us,’’ she said.
Donna Slinger of Hampton drove to Richmond on Tuesday morning after participating in two previous abortion rights protests, including one Saturday that resulted in 30 arrests. “We wanted to make our presence known to him,’’ she said. “I think he’s running from us.’’
Paul, meanwhile, seemed to be having a banner morning at the polling station at Retreat Doctors’ Hospital in Richmond, in a neighborhood just west of downtown known as The Fan. Just three voters were there between 7:30 and 8 a.m., and all three went for the Texas congressman. Two were genuine supporters. The third was a Democrat who thinks Paul would be easier for Obama to defeat than Romney.
“Hey, Virginia’s an open primary,” said the Democrat, who declined to give her name. “I love it.”
Mary Lou Trache, a paralegal who gave her age as “over 60,” said she voted for Paul because she likes his stance on domestic issues, including bringing down the national debt.
“I really admire his character and steadfastness,” she said. “I like [that] what brought him into politics was going off the gold standard.”
Trache doesn’t actually think Paul has a chance to win the nomination, but she wanted to register her unhappiness with Romney.
“He doesn’t seem as authentic a person,” she said.
Jonathan Oliver, a 25-year-old civil engineer who also voted for Paul at the hospital, said he’d been wavering between Paul and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) until he saw the ballot and realized Santorum wasn’t on it. He happily went for Paul, who impressed Oliver in debates by answering questions in a more straightforward manner than other Republicans.
“He just doesn’t seem to get caught up in the politicking stuff,” Oliver said. “I just can’t stand Romney or Gingrich, frankly.”
Super Tuesday also got off to a slow start in eastern Loudoun, with several precincts reporting fewer than 40 ballots cast by 9 a.m. At Newton-Lee Elementary in Ashburn, chief election officer Elizabeth Below said only one voter came through the quiet gymnasium in the first hour after the polls opened.
“The turnout is very poor. They told us to expect six to 10 percent, but we’ve barely hit 1 percent,” she said. She hoped voters would arrive in greater numbers in the afternoon and evening, she said.
Delores Thiel of Ashburn was one of the few voters who had cast a ballot at Newton-Lee. She said she was motivated to come to the polls because “this year, of all years, it’s extremely important to have the best candidate in place to go up against Obama and win.”
Thiel believes Romney is that best candidate, largely because of his success as a businessman. Fiscal responsibility and smaller government are critical issues, she said.
“We’ve had so much overspending. We really need to get that under control,” Thiel said. “Romney’s business sense is the key. He can establish the infrastructure of a successful business plan.”
If Romney were to win, Thiel believes the changes he’d bring to the presidency would help strengthen the economy, create jobs and cut wasteful spending.
“We need to go back to the basics,” she said.
For Tom Nevin of Ashburn, the struggling economy was the primary motivation that brought him to the polls to support Romney.
Nevin would have voted for former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), had Gingrich been on the ballot, “but you can’t lose either way,” Nevin said, adding that he believes both Gingrich and Romney display “consistency in leadership.”
(Though Gingrich and his wife, Callista, live in Northern Virginia now, NBC News reports that they will not vote in Tuesday’s primary, because they did not want to support Romney or Paul.)
Nevin likes Romney’s background as a businessman, and believes his knowledge and experience would be put to good use as the country works to recover from its economic woes, Nevin said.
If Romney were to win, “I think we’ll have a leader in the White House who will promote a business-friendly environment, and reward those who work hard,” Nevin said.
At Battlefield High School in Gainesville, voters turned out in spurts before many headed for a morning commute. Nearby Bull Run Middle School was slow all morning, observers there said, and during one 15-minute window around 9 a.m., no one entered the school’s doors to cast a ballot.
Ken Hoyt, 56, an insurance agency manager from Gainesville, said he backed Romney because “we need someone in there who is a good businessman.”
Hoyt said that while he would like to see Romney gain the nomination, he faces potential challenges — including his Mormon faith. “Religion hurts him a little bit,” he said.
Hoyt also thinks some conservatives will not look favorably on Romney’s health-care plan when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“Massachusetts is a whole different thing than the whole United States,” he said, adding that the tone of the GOP primary has hurt the party. “I think the Republicans have been stupid, as tough as they’ve been against each other.”
Thomas Pershing, a 32-year-old government analyst from Catharpin, said Paul “doesn’t have a chance” to win Virginia but voted for him because of flaws he sees in Romney.
“He doesn’t identify with the majority of Americans,” Pershing said of Romney, because of his wealth and other factors. “I wanted to put in a protest vote.”
Staff writers Jeremy Borden, Caitlin Gibson, Anita Kumar, Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.