Despite hype, turnout lower than 2008

Turnout under 60% nationally, 70% in Florida, 80% in Baker County

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The long, loud and hard-fought presidential election that ended with President Barack Obama winning a second term did not attract the voter turnout that experts expected.

Nationally, preliminary figures suggest fewer people voted this year than four years ago, when voters shattered turnout records as Obama was elected to his first term.

In most states, the numbers were even lower than in 2004, said Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Every state but Iowa is showing a smaller turnout than in 2008, Gans said. Still, the full picture may not be known for weeks because much of the counting takes place after Election Day.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, The Associated Press' figures showed about 119.5 million people had voted in the White House race -- although some votes are still being counted in Florida and elsewhere. In 2008, 131 million people cast ballots for president, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"This was a major plunge in turnout nationally," said Gans, who estimated about 126 million Americans voted, for an overall turnout rate of about 57.5 percent.

With 43 percent of Duval County voters casting ballots either early or by absentee before Election Day, Supervisor of Elections Jerry Howard predicted an 80 percent turnout. But after all the votes were cast, turnout in Jacksonville was under 75 percent. And where 39,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted in Jacksonville on Tuesday, Mitt Romney won Duval County by 15,000 votes -- up from the 8,000 margin John McCain had in 2008.

While 70 percent of Floridians cast ballots, turnout across Northeast Florida was much higher. Just over 80 percent of Baker County's voters went to the polls, followed by Nassau County's 78 percent, 75 percent in St. Johns, 73 percent in Clay and 69 percent in Putnam.

While Romney carried Jacksonville by 3.7 percent in Jacksonville, he won every neighboring county by 70 percent or more. The only counties Obama won in North Florida were Alachua and Leon -- homes to two of Florida's largest universities -- along with Jefferson and Gadsden, which neighbor Leon.

According to the American University analysis, there were large drops in voting numbers in Eastern Seaboard states still reeling from the devastation from Superstorm Sandy, which wiped out power for millions and disrupted usual voting routines. About 12 percent fewer ballots had been counted in New York than in 2008. In New Jersey, it was more than 10 percent. The gap in New Jersey could narrow in the coming days because elections officials have given displaced residents in some areas until Friday to cast special email ballots.

In areas not affected by the storm, a host of factors could have contributed to waning voter enthusiasm, Gans said. The 2012 race was one of the nastiest in recent memory, leaving many voters feeling turned off. With Democrats weary from a difficult four years and Republicans splintered by a divisive primary, neither party was particularly enthused about their own candidate. Stricter voting restrictions adopted by many states may also have kept some voters away from the polls.

"Beyond the people with passion, we have a disengaged electorate," Gans said. "This was a very tight race, there were serious things to be decided."

Both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney made voter turnout a top priority in the waning days of an intensely close race. But for months leading up to Election Day, both candidates were obsessed with that tiny sliver of undecided voters.

It may be that those who were still undecided Tuesday decided just not to show up, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"Everyone was talking about how the Democrats are unenthusiastic and the Republicans are fired up," Kondik said. "It sounds like that was all talk."

One bright spot this year was the number of early and mail-in ballots cast. Before polls opened on Election Day, more than 32 million people had voted, either by mail or in person, in 34 states and the District of Columbia. In a number of states, including Iowa, Maryland and Montana, early voting appeared to far exceed totals from 2008.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.