The number of Republican voters taking part in the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses dropped significantly this year, a Globe review of data shows.
The drop-off in Republican participation, compared with other years without a GOP incumbent, follows recent polls that indicate a high percentage of the party faithful is less than enthusiastic with the choices offered for the nomination. Analysts say there may be a combination of factors contributing to the decline in party faithful voting.
But the good news for the GOP is that, despite lighter Republican participation, independents turned out in unusually strong numbers to vote in the two GOP contests, helping to set a record. Many supported maverick Ron Paul, who is considered a long shot to win the nomination.
In last Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, 249,655 voters cast ballots, up from 241,039 in 2008 and 239,523 in the 2000. But the number of registered Republicans who voted was around 152,000, down from 165,517 in 2008 and 171,031 in 2000, also years when there was no incumbent Republican president.
This year's figures are a projection based on a Globe review of official reports from election officials in 285 of the state's 301 precincts and wards. The rest were still out or being corrected as of Friday.
The turnout numbers seem to confirm recent national polls that reflect an enthusiasm gap when it comes to Republican voters rating the caliber of their field. A CBS News poll conducted between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary showed that 58 percent of GOP primary voters want more candidates to enter the race, up 12 percentage points since October. Only 37 percent said they are satisfied with their choices.
A second survey, done during the same period by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, indicated that 51 percent of GOP voters rate their candidates as excellent or good, down from 68 percent around the same period four years ago.
Of course, Republicans are not the only ones suffering an enthusiasm deficit. There are ample data suggesting that Democrats' fervor for President Obama has declined significantly. For instance, a Gallup/USA Today poll a month ago showed that in a dozen swing states the percentage of voters who identified themselves as Democrats had declined from 35 percent to 30 percent since 2008; the percentage of self-identified Republicans rose by the same number of percentage points in that period.
One possible factor in the falloff of GOP voters in New Hampshire is that the outcome was never in doubt. "My sense is that there was a fair assumption among Republicans in New Hampshire that [Mitt] Romney was going to win this because his support cut across all clusters in the state,'' said Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant. "There were fewer Republicans turning out to vote because they were under the assumption that Romney was going to win and the alternative was dealing with a sort of flea circus of challengers.''
But that was not the case in Iowa, where the result was in doubt until the last ballots were counted and Romney beat Rick Santorum by eight votes out of 122,000 cast.
"I suspect, based on anecdotal evidence and observing Republican candidate events, that there was real discontent with the field of candidates,'' said Barbara Trish, professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. "What I picked up was that they saw Romney as the inevitable nominee, but if you're not a Romney supporter - and there are plenty who are not - that's a disconnecting thing.''
In Iowa, the parties run the caucuses, and the secretary of state's office does not record specific data of voters' pre-caucus party status. But by extrapolating from entrance poll data of voters' stated party allegiance, the number of registered Republicans casting ballots this year was slightly under 92,000, down from about 102,500 in 2008.
Jennifer Donahue, a long-time New Hampshire observer who is a fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, cited a combination of factors as possible explanations for lackluster turnout among registered Republicans, despite the fact they are facing an unpopular incumbent president.
"I talked to voters throughout the past couple of weeks, and they didn't seem to like their choices,'' said Donahue, a former journalist and past political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "I heard a lot of people say I'm still deciding between the people who are least bad. They weren't talking about voting for someone.
"Part of it may also be the way the electorate feels about politics right now,'' she said. "People are really disenchanted about government, depressed about the economy, and sick of what they see as politicians breaking promises.''
The sharp increase in the number of undeclared, or independent, voters turning out in both early states can be attributed in part to the fact that there was no real contest on the Democratic side. In 2000 and 2008, Democrats also had contested races for the presidential nomination and independents turned out in large numbers to vote in both parties. But there's another factor, according to Donahue: the intense support among independents for Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman.
Ultra-conservative on fiscal issues, a noninterventionist in foreign policy and defense, and extremely liberal on many social issues, Paul leads an unusual coalition of Tea Partiers, armed service members, veterans, and young voters.
"People wanted to send a message because of the fact Romney is embraced by the party's establishment,'' Donahue said. In New Hampshire, exit polls estimated that Paul, who finished second behind Romney, captured 32 percent of the independent vote among five active candidates, followed by Romney at 29 percent, and Jon Huntsman, a moderate, at 23 percent.
In Iowa, Paul collected a projected 43 percent of independent votes in a six-way field, based on entrance polls. Nearly half of voters under the age of 30 backed Paul in Iowa, the survey showed.
Many of his supporters say they are devoted to his cause and do not consider themselves Republicans. Roughly half his support in both early states came from voters who were not registered Republicans, according to indications from surveys of voters outside voting places. That could mean the GOP may not be able to count on them in November if he is not the nominee.