WASHINGTON — Voter turnout numbers are pointing to a potential enthusiasm deficit for Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney.
In the four states to vote so far in the GOP nominating race, turnout has been strongest where people were energized to vote for somebody else.
In Florida, where Romney grabbed a commanding 46 percent of the vote this week, overall turnout was down significantly from four years ago. A county-by-county look at the Florida numbers shows that turnout was up from four years ago in counties where rival Newt Gingrich did well and down in counties where Romney dominated, according to Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who runs the United States Elections Project to track election data.
Romney is winning, McDonald said, "but the fact that he's not really lighting a fire for these voters should be a warning sign for the campaign."
In South Carolina, where Gingrich trounced Romney, turnout was up considerably, from 445,000 four years ago to 606,000.
"Certainly the heat and energy in South Carolina was for Newt Gingrich," said Katon Dawson, a former state Republican chairman who backs Gingrich. "It takes heat and emotion to win a national contest." Whether Romney can generate the same kind of passion, Dawson said, "depends on how he campaigns from now on."
Turnout was up slightly in the first two states to vote: New Hampshire, where Romney had an easy win, and Iowa, where former Sen. Rick Santorum edged out Romney by the slimmest of margins. Democrats were quick to point out that independent voters helped set those turnout records, and President Barack Obama's campaign will be competing for those voters in the fall.
The Romney campaign says it sees hopeful signs in the turnout numbers.
His team stressed that in Florida, where this year's turnout of 1.7 million voters in the GOP primary was down from 1.9 million four years ago, a 2008 ballot initiative on taxes brought out people in droves who cared nothing about the presidential race. When those voters are taken out of the equation, Romney's campaign argued, this year's primary blows 2008 out of the water.
Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary to Republican George W. Bush, saw a mild uptick in voter interest by Republicans reflected in the turnout figures so far this year, and said that could marry up with an inevitable decline in Democratic voter turnout in the fall, when there's "no way Democrats can recapture the magic of 2008."
Fleischer acknowledges that Romney doesn't ignite the passion of tea party voters. But the flip side, he said, may be that Romney can turn out more independent voters, who will be crucial this fall in swing states. Any excitement that Romney fails to ignite, he said, could well be offset by the party's over-riding desire to defeat Obama.
The Obama camp sees plenty to smile about in the GOP turnout figures and in polls showing a lack of enthusiasm for the Republican field, including a drop in turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire among those who identify themselves as Republican.
"This is going to be a turnout game," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "They are absolutely not prepared for that battle, nor do they think that battle is that important. But eventually they're going to have to persuade voters, and they're not going to be there."
The lack of GOP enthusiasm, Messina said, will be "a real problem when you get to the part where you have to turn out voters."
Republicans, too, claim reasons for encouragement in the early voter turnout and registration numbers.
In Iowa, state party officials point to a shift in registration figures that shows an increase in the number of registered Republicans and a drop in registered Democrats over recent months.
In New Hampshire, GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald said he was pleased with an uptick in GOP primary turnout to nearly 250,000 voters, from 241,000 four years earlier. But he was equally happy to see just 62,000 ballots cast in the Democratic primary, where Obama was a shoo-in. MacDonald contrasts that number to the 77,000 who turned out to vote for President Bill Clinton in his re-election year in 1996 and sees signs of flagging support for Obama.
New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala said the relatively flat turnout in New Hampshire could have been a reflection of the lack of serious competition there for Romney, who led from the beginning.
"Even if Republicans are not overwhelmed by the field in New Hampshire, they found Mitt Romney perfectly acceptable," said Scala, adding that Obama will face his own enthusiasm issues in the state, where independents have soured on the president.
McDonald, the George Mason professor, said Romney turns out more voters in large urban centers and suburban areas, while Gingrich shines in rural areas. No matter who gets the nomination, he says, "that candidate's going to have to heal some wounds within the party" to generate the broad kind of turnout needed to prevail in the fall.
AP writers Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., and Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
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