Central Valley

Valley's turnout falls shy of projection

SACRAMENTO -- Despite the hype, Valley voters weren't too stirred by Super Tuesday.

Voter turnout in Merced, Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties will likely rank among the lowest in the state for last week's presidential primary, according to preliminary voting estimates. Less than half of all registered voters cast ballots in the counties -- far below projections.

"I am disappointed," said Fresno County Clerk Victor Salazar. "With all this interest, what happened?"

Some analysts said that the Valley, where the GOP predominates, was hit by the same trend sweeping the nation: Republican voters just haven't felt the same excitement that has moved Democrats to the polls in record numbers.

There was "a lot more uncertainty, a lot less satisfaction, on the Republican side," said Mark Baldassare, a public opinion expert at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

In the Valley, GOP enthusiasm was likely dampened by the departure from the race of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was an early favorite in the region.

Coming into the vote, Arizona Sen. John McCain had the momentum. He took the state handily, but lost in Fresno County, which favored former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The vote totals could still shift some as more absentee votes are counted.

But none of the GOP candidates captured the same attention as Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who are still locked in a tight battle for the nomination.

The numbers tell the story: In the five-county central San Joaquin Valley, the GOP holds a 44% to 39% voter registration edge over Democrats. But in the primary, Democratic candidates drew 5,791 more votes than Republicans, according to the latest count.

In Fresno County, Clinton drew 34,320 votes and Obama had 19,352 -- both higher totals than Romney's 19,282 votes or McCain's 18,741, according to the latest totals. Some absentee ballots are not included, so it's conceivable that the Republicans could edge ahead of the Democrats once all the ballots are counted.

Salazar said that in north Fresno, officials were running out of Democratic ballots on election day.

"That's highly uncommon," he said. "We certainly saw a higher Democratic turnout than we expected."

The official turnout numbers aren't final because counties are still counting thousands of absentee and provisional ballots. If estimates of those outstanding ballots are included -- and assuming most of them are valid -- Fresno County's final turnout rate should be about 47%, well below the projections of 60% to 70%.

The turnout estimate, if it holds, is still above the 42% Fresno County turnout in the 2004 primary. But that primary was held later in the year, as Democrat John Kerry raced to a convincing win and President Bush faced no competition.

Tulare County's turnout is on pace to be about 49%, four points higher than it was in the 2004 primary.

"That's a good turnout but ... it's not amazing," said Paul Sampietro, the county's election division manager.

Kings County's turnout should end at about 47% and Merced County's at 45%, according to estimates. Only Madera County appears to have bucked the trend, with an estimated 61% turnout.

Democratic-leaning counties Marin and Sonoma led the pack with turnout rates above 70%, according to initial estimates.

In Fresno County, turnout could also have been affected by a decision to scale back early voting, Salazar said.

In previous elections, the county had been promoting the practice, in which voters could vote up to 29 days in advance using touch-screen machines at several sites. But new state rules limited the use of the machines. In response, the county only allowed early voting at one spot, the county elections office.

Party rules might have also played a role.

Democrats allowed independent voters to cast ballots, but the GOP did not. While some independents chose Democrats, other, more conservative independents likely stayed home rather than re-registering as Republicans, Baldassare said.

"They might not really have been enthusiastic about the Republican choices," he said.

That would suggest that the GOP faces an uphill fight come November's general election.

"The Republicans have a serious, serious problem of lack of enthusiasm," said Tony Quinn, a Sacramento-based political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. "That is a definite problem for the fall for them -- and they ought to face up to that."

The last Republican presidential candidate to win California was George H.W. Bush in 1988. To break the streak, McCain, the heavy favorite for the GOP nomination, will have to rally the GOP base in the Valley and win over a big share of independent voters, Quinn said.

Fresno resident and former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who is McCain's state campaign chairman, said the Arizona senator will compete vigorously here because he has crossover appeal.

"If you look at how the senator has done with independent voters, he is very competitive with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama," Jones said.