Turnout Figures Show Kerry Needs Zip in His Veep

Posted March 5, 2004 at 2:37pm

Although Democrats invariably say their party is “pumped” to beat President Bush, primary election turnout numbers don’t confirm it — a factor Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) might consider when he selects his running mate.

Total Democratic turnout in the 30 primaries and caucuses through Super Tuesday was 8,854,490, according to one GOP analysis, well behind the 11,280,625 recorded during 21 Republican contests in 2000, when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) was challenging George W. Bush.

Most of the most-discussed candidates for the No. 2 spot have definite virtues — and drawbacks — but none of them will exactly light up the sky for Kerry.

Who would? Well, McCain would for sure. And, despite his rather firm denials that he’d ever abandon his party, some serious Democrats still harbor vague hopes of getting him to defect.

“I wouldn’t say the chances are [as good as] one in a hundred,” said one Democratic insider who knows McCain. “But they aren’t one in a million, either.”

McCain himself told the New York Post, “Do you think the Democrats would want a pro-life, free-trading fiscal conservative? They’d be smoking something pretty strong, stronger than they usually do.” He added, “I will not leave the Republican Party.”

Moreover, aides point out, McCain is co-chairman of Bush’s re-election campaign in Arizona. So, I’d say the chances of a Kerry-McCain ticket actually are close to one in a million.

So, who else would get the electorate turned on? Probably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), though she’d also be polarizing — along with her husband — and might outshine President Kerry if the ticket actually got elected.

Would Sen. Clinton do it? Why not? She’d be doing her party a big favor, enhancing her already-formidable claims on the 2008 nomination if the ticket lost. And, if it won, she’d have the 2012 nomination for the asking.

The reason Kerry needs excitement, frankly, is that he tends to be dour, ponderous and long-winded on the stump. He’s demonstrated he can be upbeat and energetic on occasion, but — as his victory speech on Super Tuesday indicated — he tends to lapse.

Moreover, exit polls from the primaries showed over and over that Democratic voters were picking Kerry not because they were swooning over him, but because they thought he could beat Bush and his rivals couldn’t.

In almost every state prior to Super Tuesday, the exits showed that voters felt they agreed more with Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) on the issues and felt he had a more positive message than Kerry did.

Last Tuesday, that remained true in some states — including Maryland, Connecticut and Georgia — but not in Ohio, California and New York, where Kerry led on the issues.

At the moment, the upbeat Edwards is the Democrats’ sentimental favorite for veep, but he lacks governing experience and probably can’t help Kerry in the South. He does project charisma, though.

Other oft-named contenders have a good deal less — Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, and Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson.

If Kerry selected one of them, it would be for the states they might help him carry. Bayh, Gephardt and Nelson also voted not only to authorize the Iraq war, but also to pay for the aftermath, which Kerry and Edwards did not.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has natural charm, a moderate record, extensive foreign policy experience, and he represents a state that Al Gore carried by just 366 votes and would help Democrats hold the all-important Hispanic vote.

He might not beat McCain or Clinton for pizazz, but he’s got some, maybe rivaling Edwards.

Kerry’s need for added energy is evident in primary turnout figures, which show no better than average voter enthusiasm.

In the 19 states where Democratic primaries were held this year (excluding caucuses), Republican turnout was higher in 2000 in 13. In the other six, three — Delaware, Massachusetts and Maryland — have significantly more registered Democrats than Republicans.

And, in the other three — Wisconsin, Tennessee and Oklahoma — the 2000 GOP primary occurred after Super Tuesday and after McCain had dropped out of the race.

Democratic turnout in the Iowa caucuses was high — 124,333 — but it was not a record. That was set in 1988.

Turnout in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary — 219,787 — did set a Democratic record, but it was lower by nearly 20,000 than GOP turnout in 2000.

In South Carolina on Feb. 3, Democratic turnout was 291,000 vs. 566,000 for the GOP in 2000. GOP turnout was marginally higher in Missouri and Arizona, as well.

On Super Tuesday, Democratic turnout in Maryland was smaller than in 2000 or 1992; smaller in Georgia than GOP turnout in 2000; smaller in California than in Democratic primaries in 2000 and 1980 and the GOP primary in 2000; and smaller in Ohio than the Democratic primary in 1988 and the GOP primary in 2000.

In Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts, fewer Democrats turned out than when Sen. Edward Kennedy ran in 1980 and when Michael Dukakis ran in 1988.

So, who’d pump Democratic turnout? Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn? Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack? Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin? Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu? Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey? None of the above is an obvious lamp-lighter. But then, charisma isn’t everything.