Democrats eyeing record turnout

Hillary Clinton (left), Barack Obama (center), John Edwards (right).

South Carolina Democrats have long felt confident that more than 300,000 voters will go to the polls Saturday, breaking their record turnout of 290,431 set four years ago.

And based on absentee voting to date, the Democrats could obliterate that record and even rival last week's GOP turnout of 444,090.

As of Thursday the state had issued 53,936 absentee ballots — 32,164 for Democrats and 21,772 for the GOP primary Jan. 19 — according to figures from the State Election Commission.

That means the Democratic absentee turnout is on track to approach 50 percent higher than the Republican absentee turnout. Absentee voting will continue through 5 p.m. today in the Democratic primary.

Charleston County Democratic Party Chairman Waring Howe called the absentee numbers "tremendous" and said they bode well for an eyebrow-raising turnout on Saturday.

well for an eyebrow-raising turnout on Saturday.

"We're looking forward to a record turnout that will equal or exceed the Republicans on Jan. 19," he said.

Chris Whitmire of the State Election Commission said the absentee numbers are contrary to the turnout trends in the state's previous primaries. "In recent history we've seen more South Carolina voters participate in the Republican state primaries than the Democratic state primaries," he said.

Howe said he has sensed the possibility of a big turnout because all three leading candidates have stirred excitement among voters. "I believe there are a lot of people who maybe normally vote Republican who bypassed the Republican primary to vote in ours," he said.

Charleston County's absentee voting mirrors the state's. On Saturday, 2,001 absentee votes were cast in the GOP primary.

But the county has received more than 6,400 requests for absentee ballots, indicating that this Republican-leaning county might see twice as many Democratic absentee votes than Republican ones in these presidential races, according to the county Board of Voter Registration.

Its staunchly Republican neighbors had similar tales. Wanda Farley, director of the Berkeley County Elections and Voter Registration Office, said the office had about 1,600 requests for people wanting to vote absentee, although everyone who asks for an application doesn't turn one in.

On Saturday the county recorded about 360 absentee votes in the GOP primary.

"I would guess we're going to have a lot more than that for the Democrats," Farley said, because about 400 people have come in so far to vote absentee for Saturday's primary, and completed applications are still coming in by mail. "It looked like it was pretty evenly balanced until this week," she added. "This week we have been slammed with voters."

In Dorchester County, the Board of Elections and Voter Registration issued 420 absentee applications for the Republican primary, and 329 ballots were cast. "That's about average," said assistant director Meredith Murray.

Murray said she won't know how many will vote absentee in the Democratic primary until this morning, but she predicted the absentee tally would be about average also.

Other early states have broken their records this year. Iowa's caucuses drew about 239,000 Democrats and 112,000 Republicans, the highest totals ever for each party. The Democratic total shattered the old record of 124,000 from 2000.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler, who wasn't aware of the absentee tallies, said Thursday that she was confident of a record turnout but said she doubted that the party's vote total will approach the GOP mark.

"Maybe that's possible in some counties, but you have to remember there are many, many more Republicans than Democrats in South Carolina," she said. "I don't anticipate that we will outvote the Republicans, although their turnout was significantly down from what it had been in the past."

The Jan. 19 turnout was down 22 percent from the record 573,101 votes cast in the 2000 Republican primary battle that pitted George W. Bush against John McCain.

Several factors played into that drop: There was no Democratic race that year to tempt independent or swing voters, and Bush and McCain campaigned heavily in this state for almost three weeks after the New Hampshire primary, a lot longer than the stretch run for Republicans this month.

Also, rain and snow fell over the state all day last Saturday.

This Saturday's forecast calls for better conditions — a few clouds and chilly air.

A record-shattering turnout would give new energy to a party that got pounded last November, losing all but one statewide race.

Howe said it would make it easier to recruit state and local candidates to run as Democrats and might even tempt the eventual Democratic nominee to campaign in the state, especially since the campaigns will have left behind a long list of experienced operatives and volunteers.

"It would be huge," he said, "because we could make a credible case that finally South Carolina has become a competitive state in the general election for the presidential race, that we're no longer bright red."