With GOP Race Settled, Will Republicans Turn Out for Romney?

On Tuesday, five states will hold the first primaries since Rick Santorum dropped out. Don't forget: Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are still running.


(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

What if they held an election and no one came?

That could happen Tuesday, when five states will hold the first presidential primaries since a daunting delegate lead and Rick Santorum's exit from the race made Mitt Romney the presumptive Republican nominee. For voters in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut, the put-a-fork-in-it race at the top of the ticket isn't much of a draw.

Except that history shows there's a group of hardcore voters who show up even when the presidential primary has been settled. George Mason University associate professor Michael McDonald, who specializes in turnout, calls them "expressive voters.'' For a candidate like Romney, viewed in some Republican circles as a consolation prize in an election year in which stronger and more conservative politicians took a pass, Tuesday's turnout could help "express'' the enthusiasm gap, if it exists.

"If Romney does still have a problem with Republicans, it might show up in the turnout levels on Tuesday,'' McDonald said. "It will be interesting to see how many people still want to express their support since he became the nominee.''

To be sure, turnout in presidential primaries is not completely fueled by the top of the ticket. Competitive state and local races can also have an impact. McDonald also cautioned that linking turnout to the presumptive presidential nominee doesn't take into account that some voters, albeit a minority, are choosing one of his rivals.

Having said that, turnout in presidential primaries in Pennsylvania, one of the most important battlegrounds in the country, hasn't varied tremendously from year to year. It peaked slightly in the 2008 Republican primary to 26 percent even though John McCain had locked down the nomination more than two months earlier.

In the 2004 Democratic primary, held weeks after John Kerry claimed the nomination, turnout was 21 percent. In 2000, when both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore claimed their nominations early in the primary season, turnout in Pennsylvania was 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

A five-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate this year could help drive voters to the polls in Pennsylvania. Still, it's fair to say that turnout much below these recent benchmarks, or much higher, would indicate something about the level of enthusiasm for Romney.

Not surprisingly, both the Obama and Romney campaigns declined to reveal their expectations for Tuesday's turnout and what it might say about the race.

"You can't completely dismiss the presidential primaries at this point,'' McDonald said. "I'm certain Romney is going to be the nominee, but I think his campaign has an incentive to be active on Tuesday. It's sort of a dress rehearsal for the general election.''

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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