Obama faces major enthusiasm gap compared to Bill Clinton in 1996

A major sign of President Barack Obama’s weakness in his own political party base has been revealed in the president’s poor voter turnout in eight major presidential primaries so far this year.

Obama has won only 1,213,759 votes in 2012 compared to then-President Bill Clinton’s 1,695,756 in 1996 in eight state primaries where a fair comparison can be made.

Both candidates faced similar situations with weak or no opposition in these primaries with their names on the ballot. As the chart shows, when finally adjusted for voter registration changes since 1996, Obama in 2012 has only 56 percent of the Clinton vote in 1996. Overall Obama won only 4.5 percent of the registered voters in these eight states compared to Clinton’s 8.0 percent.

It is, of course, unknown if the trend will hold in coming contests, but the turnout evidence from primaries to date suggests vulnerabilities for the Obama campaign that other indicators of voter sentiment, such as polling, have not picked up.

In most of these states, any registered voter could vote in either party’s primary. So, this analysis uses the percentage of all registered voters as a comparison for all eight states.

In the top three states in the chart where registered Democrats made up almost all the voters, Obama won 8.9 percent of the registered Democrats in 2012 compared to Clinton’s 19.2 percent in 1996.

Obama did better than Clinton in only one state, Vermont, which is not surprising since it was Obama’s second strongest state (next to Hawaii) in the 2008 general election. Obama’s second best state when compared to Clinton is Georgia where he won 86.8 percent of Clinton’s 1996 vote when adjusted for changes in voter registration.

At first, this appears to be surprising, because Obama lost Georgia in the general election, but he won it overwhelmingly in the 2008 primary. Also, Georgia has had a major increase in its African-American population since 1996, especially from Northern cities and the West Coast.

Obama’s poorest showing: Oklahoma

Obama’s poorest state showing compared to Clinton is no surprise. It occurred in Oklahoma, where Obama, like Clinton, actually had opponents on the ballot—unlike most states where he appeared on the ballot alone or against uncommitted. Oklahoma was one of Obama’s worst states against John McCain in 2008 as well as against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.

Only 21 percent of Clinton’s 1996 primary votes were won by Obama in the 2012 Oklahoma primary when adjusted for voter registration changes. Not only that, he received only 57 percent of the 2012 Democratic presidential primary vote compared to Bill Clinton’s 76 percent of the 1996 Democratic presidential primary vote.

This poor Oklahoma showing by Obama sparked one of the few major media reports on the lack of support for Obama in his own party primary. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted on March 13 that “a review of the states that have also held Democratic contests this year shows turnout is down sharply from the last time a Democratic president was running largely unopposed for renomination—1996.” The Post said that in Oklahoma, “(a state that has turned sharply against the Democratic Party over that 16-year span), turnout was down 69 percent.”

The local Oklahoma newspapers, The Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, also pointed out that this was the lowest Oklahoma Democratic presidential primary turnout since 1988 and that Obama lost two congressional districts including the district presently held by retiring “Blue Dog” Democratic Rep. Dan Boren.

(Click the image to expand chart.)

Trouble in swing states

Oklahoma is part of the nation, too, and the fact that Obama lost many heavily Democrat-registered rural counties to weak opposition has great significance for the November election. It means that Obama is in big trouble in states where he needs rural Democratic votes, including the key swing states of Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

John Nichols of The Nation reported on the first primary in New Hampshire that “the Democratic primary turnout this year was down dramatically (roughly 33 percent) from 1996, the last year when a Democratic president was seeking re-election without meaningful opposition.” He asked whether this “evidence of an enthusiasm gap when it comes to voting in the Democratic primary” is “just a New Hampshire concern, or if it might be a problem in other battleground states where Obama may not have much margin for error.”

Now that we have seven of eight primaries showing a poor Obama turnout, we can say that this is solid evidence that the president is in much more trouble than he is in most polls. This is based on what real voters do, not on what media-manipulated samples of just a few hundred adults indicate.

In the next few weeks, we will see whether other primaries will reveal this trend, especially in such key swing states as Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Obama won in 2008.