01/16/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2012

Are the Candidates Turning Off the GOP Rank and File?

Voter turnout, mostly overlooked by the press, should be a main question after the Jan. 21 South Carolina Republican primary. Turnout until now has been poor. Instead of attracting voters, the presidential candidates have been repelling them.

For a long time now, Senate and House Republicans have said their main goal is to defeat Barack Obama, and they have certainly behaved as though all else is secondary. Any lack of interest among the GOP rank and file would greatly threaten that.

In the Jan. 3 Iowa Republican caucuses there was a total of 121,914 votes. That is a tad higher than the 118,411 four years earlier, but the caucuses back then were on a frigid, 4-degree night. This year the weather was an almost balmy 35 degrees -- conducive to a high turnout, had the enthusiasm been there. In fact, fewer than 20 percent of registered Republicans showed up for the 2012 caucuses, and that figure itself is inflated, since it includes a small number of Democrats and independents who crossed over to take part.

In the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, according to the secretary of state's office there, total voting inched up infinitesimally, by less than half of one percent above 2008. But, with no Democratic presidential primary this year, there was a surge of independent crossover voters in New Hampshire, and the actual GOP turnout was down substantially, by about 17 percent. (The arithmetic: In 2008, 241,000 people voted and exit polls showed that 37 percent were independent crossovers. This year, 247,000 voted and 49 percent were independents, according to the exit polls.)

The GOP field of candidates has been widely criticized -- not just by Democrats but by themselves and their supporters. If the rank and file continue to stay home, the threat is not just that Obama will win again but that the Democrats will keep the Senate and perhaps retake the House.

On the other hand, Republican politicians and their Wall Street corporate allies, liberated by the Citizens United ruling, have wads of money -- unlimited amounts -- for the 2012 campaign to oust Obama and use against the Democrats. But that's getting ahead of the story. First, let's see what happens in South Carolina and in Florida 10 days later. Not just who wins, but how many folks turn out.

This report also appeared on the Nieman Watchdog website.