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Turnouts down in all three GOP contests on Tuesday

With final results in from Tuesday’s caucuses and primary, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum pulled off large margins of victory in three non-binding nominating contests, all marked by low turnout.

In Missouri, which held a primary but will not use the results to award delegates, Santorum got 55.2 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney got 25.3 percent, and Texas Representative Ron Paul got 12.2 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not appear on the ballot. There were just under 252,000 votes cast, according to the Associated Press tally, less than half of the 588,000 votes that were cast in the Republican primary in 2008.

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In 2008, the Missouri primary featured a winner-take-all system where John McCain narrowly beat Mike Huckabee to win all of the state’s delegates. This year, the primary was no more than a “beauty contest,” since delegates will be awarded at a caucus in March.

In Colorado’s caucuses, Santorum won with 40.2 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 34.9 percent, Gingrich with 12.8 percent, and Paul with 11.8 percent. Just over 65,500 votes were cast. Turnout was down slightly from 2008, when more than 70,000 people voted.

In Minnesota’s caucuses, with 97 percent of precincts reporting this morning, Santorum won with 44.9 percent followed by Paul with 27.1 percent, Romney with 16.8 percent, and Gingrich with 10.7 percent. Only around 47,000 attended caucuses, compared to record-breaking attendance of around 62,000 participants in the 2008 Republican caucuses, held on Super Tuesday.

Romney won the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses in 2008, making yesterday’s finishes even more disappointing for him.

Democrats are already crowing about the low turnout. “Alarming for Republicans is the lack of enthusiasm and low turnout we’re seeing in these contests,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “In state after state, turnout among Republican voters is lower than it was in 2008, and they are increasingly dissatisfied with their choice of candidates.”

But Jeffrey Berry, professor of American politics at Tufts University, said it is difficult to generalize from primary turnout to general election turnout. “In the end, Republicans are going to unite around whoever wins the nomination,” Berry said. “The party is having difficulty deciding who it wants. But it’s a party where ‘anybody but Obama’ is the candidate everyone can support.”

Berry said the low turnout is probably attributable to the low visibility of the races. The candidates did not spend a lot of time in any of the states, given that Nevada voted just three days earlier and Florida the previous week.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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