Turnout Proves That Mitt Really Did Scorch the Earth
The real story of the three results from Tuesday night is not that Rick Santorum picked up some wins -- though that is big. No, the real story is that three states held votes and nobody came. Almost nobody, that is. Consider that the total turnout for Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota combined was barely over half of the turnout of South Carolina alone and -- worse yet -- barely over half the turnout for the same three states in 2008.
Thus, after South Carolina's record-setting primary turnout, the Republican Party has now seen a total of five events in a row where turnout was down compared to 2008. This includes the three events from this week along with Nevada and Florida.
Yes, something has made Republicans less excited about beating Barack Obama than they were about John McCain maybe replacing George W. Bush. Who knew that was even possible?
The answer is fairly clear. The candidates have forgotten about Obama. What has turned folks off is Mitt Romney's scorched-earth campaign, which has managed to unfortunately suck all the rest of the candidates into a circular firing squad of a childish food-fight that is of zero interest to the Republican base voter.
Given that all have entered the negative arena, though, you might ask, Why blame Mitt?
Good question, but it has an easy answer. The Romney campaign and their PACs have the lion's share of the ad money and thus can dictate the ground rules. Also, for the record, they started it, along with Ron Paul in Iowa, in a panicked response to Newt's double-digit lead in the polls. In Florida it got so bad that 99% of Mitt's ads were negative towards Newt Gingrich, and only 1% were positive about Mitt. He ran 65 TV ads to every one Newt could run.
I guess the Romney campaign forgot a person named Barack Obama. They damned near forgot about Romney. At the very least, they thought he was irrelevant.
Ironically, no one has attacked Rick Santorum, so he has gotten a pass from talk radio and others in the media for being above the fray -- and yet most of his ads have been negative ads, and most have been aimed also at Gingrich. And yes, Gingrich, who owned the polls in November and early December -- and then again during South Carolina week -- jettisoned his winning strategy of focusing on liberals and also joined the ugliness. Predictably, he has started losing again.
Moreover, voters stopped turning out. They were turned off. In South Carolina Newt was able to keep the focus on liberals on issues of racism, work ethic, public schools, unions, judges, Iran, and media bias. This excited voters, and the Palmetto State had a 35% jump in participation over 2008. They were jazzed. To paraphrase the Merle Haggard tune, Newt was "kicking liberals' asses and raisin' hell."
This raises the question: if this is what everybody wants, why is it so hard for candidates and consultants to figure out? It is patently obvious that conservative and Republican base voters wants to hear about only two things. They want to hear a vision for beating Barack Obama and then a vision for reversing the damage Obama and his buddies in Congress have done. That is the only thing folks are interested in, and Newt was able to keep the focus in S.C. on mostly just that.
Yes, I know -- people respond to negative ads, so there is a case to be made that "they work." But you have to define "working." The main way people respond is by staying home. They stop caring. And to achieve this result, you have to run a ton of negative ads. So if you're willing and able to run a scorched-earth campaign and just mercilessly hammer an opponent by means of your big budget, you can keep his or her numbers down and win a contest.
There is one teeny-tiny little problem. Once you scorch the earth...well, the earth is scorched. The fields are salted, so to speak. They quit bearing fruit. What Mitt Romney in particular and the entire party in general should understand from the past five contests is that this is an absolutely losing strategy in the long run. Obama will be easily beaten if the GOP has an excited base that donates and talks up the candidates and turns out and is aggressive about yard signs and bumper stickers and other iterations of intensity -- because it is positive intensity that attracts new voters.
A depressed or even disgusted conservative base means another McCain or Dole or Bush 41 campaign -- in other words -- four more years of Obama. Put another way, the choice is a raucous, enthusiastic election à la South Carolina -- or the low-turnout models seen in the past five states. The only way to regain what the party (not necessarily just Newt) had in South Carolina is to refocus on Obama and liberals.
When I wrote on the day of the Florida primary that Mitt had earned only a shallow and costly victory, I was accused of merely having sour grapes and of not having a case. Perhaps my grapes were a bit sour. That doesn't change the fact that the analysis and prediction were right on the money. Mitt's scorched earth has indeed come back to haunt not only him, but the entire party. Even Santorum can claim wins only with tiny voter populations that have been carpet-bombed with negativity. He has shown zero ability to promote enthusiasm or turnout either.
In a cycle when primary turnout should be at an all-time high, the hatred the candidates have for each other is trumping their love for the country and turning voters away in droves. There is no way this is a winning strategy in 2012. If one of these candidates does not re-apprehend what the voters are demanding, we will all be losers.