Why the turnout totals matter

This was supposed to be a big year for Republican voter turnout in Iowa. With GOP voters reportedly eager as part of their crusade against President Obama, and with six candidates spending over $13 million to generate some excitement, party insiders predicted 130,000 Iowans would participate.

As Dave Weigel reported, that’s not quite what happened.

Four years ago, a depressed GOP went to the precinct caucuses, very well aware that Democrats had all the energy. The total GOP vote: 119,188. This year, Republicans should be psyched about the chance to uproot Barack Obama. There will be something above 122,000 total votes. An improvement, right? Well … in 2008, 86 percent of the people who chose the GOP caucuses were Republicans. This year, 75 percent of the electorate was Republican, with the rest of the vote coming from independents and Democrats. What the hell happened?

Dave wrote that around 2 a.m., so I’ll just note for the record that the final tally was 122,255 votes cast. Yes, that barely surpassed the 2008 totals, but it fell short of expectations, and the larger circumstances suggest this year should have been much better — if Iowa Republicans turned out 119,000 when they were depressed and uninspired, turning out 122,000 when they’re supposed to be fired up, and bolstered by the Tea Party “movement,” represents something of a setback.

Indeed, John Avlon called last night’s participation numbers an “ominous sign.”

Republicans are counting on an enthusiasm gap to get ahead in 2012. It’s only one contest, of course, but at this point, there’s reason to question just how much enthusiasm exists within the GOP base.