Presidential Election: Will it hurt or help local races?

It's like a rock dropped into a water bucket: From the splash, waves radiate to the rim and bounce back.

Barack Obama made a big splash in voter turnout in 2008. Now comes the backwash. Will it be a resurgence, a backlash or just a ripple?

It's not a question of who takes the state. Both Georgia and Alabama will give their electoral votes to Republican Mitt Romney, just as they did for John McCain in 2008. Alabama hasn't gone to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Georgia hasn't since Bill Clinton's first run in 1992.

The question is: How will Obama's re-election campaign affect the "down-ballot" races that benefitted from his first run? Local races such as sheriff and district attorney got a boost from the Democratic turnout he triggered.

Columbus is considered a Democratic stronghold, a little blue tattoo on the left side of a red state. But the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that elects local judges and the district attorney is not so uniform.

Along with the rebound of Obama fans who stand by their man comes the backfire from Republicans rallying against him, and the national dynamics have changed: Romney-Ryan's no McCain-Palin, and the country's coming off four years of Obama, not eight of George W. Bush.

The Obama surge of 2008 brought out voters for Muscogee Sheriff John Darr and District Attorney Julia Slater. It gave Columbus-based Superior Court judge candidate Alonza Whitaker a boost, too, but not enough to overcome Gil McBride's support in other parts of the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

The judge's race is nonpartisan, but Whitaker clearly got the Democratic vote here in Columbus, tallying 34,006 to McBride's 29,478.

Muscogee County went for Obama by 44,158 votes to McCain's 29,568.

In the district attorney's race, Slater got 40,640 Muscogee votes to Republican incumbent Gray Conger's 28,828. In the sheriff's race, Darr got 39,272 to independent incumbent Ralph Johnson's 29,377.

In the race for Municipal Court judge, Democrat Stephen Hyles got 42,679 to incumbent Republican Haywood Turner's 27,107. In the race for Superior Court clerk, incumbent Democrat Linda Pierce got 47,973 to Republican Reba Rae's 21,079.

A 2008 Ledger-Enquirer analysis showed Columbus' majority-black and traditionally Democratic south Columbus voting precincts went big for Obama and kept voting for Democrats on down the ballot.

And a lot of those Democrats didn't wait until Election Day. Columbus' early vote in 2008 turned out to be 51 percent of the final tally. A record 38,075 people voted in advance.

In some majority black, Democratic precincts, the early vote was more than 51 percent. The Fort Middle School precinct, for example, cast 60 percent of its 2,123 votes in advance. It was 92 percent black. There, Obama got 97 percent; Slater got 92 percent and Darr got 86 percent.

Almost 70 percent of the Belvedere Senior Center's 2,077 votes came in advance of Election Day, giving Obama 94 percent, Slater 91 percent and Darr 84 percent. It was 91 percent black.

In all, Slater got 19,835 early votes to Conger's 9,957, and Darr got 18,960 to Johnson's 10,526.

"Gray Conger would have been re-elected, with just Election Day voting, but the early voting surge that I believe was totally driven by Obama's support, just flooded and sunk him," said Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus attorney and former Muscogee Republican Party chairman who tracks election trends. The early vote was tallied last, on election night, and in a flash, Slater had almost 10,000 more votes than her Republican opponent, and Darr had almost 8,500 more than his.

"You think about going from being ahead in Muscogee County with your Election Day total to losing Muscogee County 60-40," McKoon said. "You think about how badly you had to lose the early voting to make that happen." One reason for the early turnout in 2008 was Democratic Party workers' urging first-time Obama voters to cast ballots early, in case some issue with their registration came up. It left time to clear up identification or residency issues.

Now the historic milestone of electing America's first black president is four years in the past.

"Just generally, in terms of the talk about the election, there just doesn't seem to be the intensity that there was in 2008," McKoon said.

John Van Doorn, a political science professor and chair of the Muscogee Democratic Party, acknowledges Democrats can't expect the turnout they had "when enthusiasm was at an all-time high."

Volunteers have to work harder at getting those voters to come back, he said: "That's our ground plan. That's what we do, is we have massive phone-banking and canvassing."

Muscogee County's again poised to back Obama "overwhelmingly," he said.

But the 60 to 40 percent Democratic vote of 2008 is unlikely, said McKoon: "What will be interesting, and what I will be looking for on election night, my expectation would be that we would be more in line with our traditional 55 to 56 percent Democrat majority, rather than '08 when we really were right there at 59 or 60."

The drop off

That's important because voters turning out for a ticket-topper tend to drop off as they go down the ballot. If the top turnout's down, down-ballot races lose the momentum.

"The local races are probably a little more competitive," said Van Doorn, adding that without polling, trends are hard to identify.

The early vote was a harbinger in 2008, but just as the dynamics of presidential politics have changed, so have the mechanics of early voting.

In 2008 Georgians had from Sept. 22 to Oct. 31, though only one Columbus poll was available until the week before Election Day.

The Georgia General Assembly last year cut that early voting window from 45 to 21 days. This year it ran Oct. 15 to Nov. 2. The elections office opened four polls for the entire period, with two Saturdays for voting at the Columbus Public Library.

Nancy Boren, executive director of the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registrations, said Friday that the total of early votes was hitting 18,000. Divided by 11 days, that's on average about 1,600 a day.

In 2008, Columbus had about 30 days of early voting. With 38,075 votes in the bag by Election Day, that averages about 1,270 a day.

So the early turnout is running strong, on average.

This time it may include Republicans rallying for a Romney revolution to overthrow Obama.

Republican rally?

Anecdotal evidence suggests the Republican base is energized, McKoon said. At the local party headquarters on Second Avenue, business has been brisk.

"We've gone through hundreds, if not thousands, of yard signs and bumper stickers. We're not really advertising the headquarters, but people are finding it and coming in," he said.

And not in fits and starts like 2008: "We had about a week like that, the week after Sarah Palin was announced as the vice-presidential candidate, and then it kind of dropped off," he said.

If Republicans in other counties of the judicial circuit vote a party line, that could affect the district attorney's race.

"I could easily see Governor Romney topping out at 75 or 80 percent in Harris County," McKoon said.

Van Doorn agreed the judicial circuit is no sure bet for Columbus Democrats.

Here's how the counties voted in the 2008 presidential race: Chattahoochee, McCain 811, Obama 830; Harris, McCain 10,648, Obama 4,184; Marion, McCain 1,772, Obama 1,381; Talbot, McCain 1,301, Obama 2,369; Taylor, McCain 2,021, Obama 1,536.

Here's how those counties voted in the district attorney's race: Chattahoochee, Conger 709, Slater 770; Harris, Conger 9,762, Slater 4,216; Marion, Conger 1,507, Slater 1,411; Talbot, Conger 1,245, Slater 1,907; Taylor, Conger 1,813, Slater 1,409.

Here's how circuit counties other than Muscogee voted in the judge's race between Whitaker and McBride: Chattahoochee, McBride 770, Whitaker 543; Harris, McBride 9,048, Whitaker 3,496; Marion, McBride 1,660, Whitaker 882; Talbot, McBride 1,395, Whitaker 1,445; Taylor, McBride 1,830, Whitaker 907.

The judge's race was nonpartisan, so folks here in Columbus might consider Whitaker a Democrat, but no label marked him as such. The tallies show his down-ballot race out in the circuit didn't get as much carryover from the Obama surge.

The victories of 2008 pose a challenge to Democrats today, to keep their backers engaged beyond the ballot's more prominent races, Van Doorn said.

"I think a lot of the Democrats, maybe even locally, have some of this complacency we've talked about," he said. "It doesn't matter what they do nationally, and locally, they're going to coast to a victory, and that's not necessarily true."

Said McKoon: "I just think 2008 was a once-in-a-generation kind of event, and so that turnout's going to return to normal, and I think Republican turnout will over-perform what it has traditionally done."