SOUTH BEND - When then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, locked in a tight race for the Democratic nomination for president, visited the area in March 2008, more than 4,000 supporters packed the Mishawaka High School gym to hear her speak.
Twelve days later, her opponent, then-Sen. Barack Obama, spoke before a crowd of 3,500 at Washington High School in South Bend.
The excitement generated by the race drove voters to the polls. More than 9,200 people cast early ballots that year, and an additional 62,879 came out on primary election day.
All told, more than 72,000 people, or about 38 percent of registered voters in the county, participated in the election, an increase of about 235 percent compared with 2004 and about 336 percent compared with 2000.
Four years later, that excitement is gone.
President Barack Obama is unopposed in the Democratic primary, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is now the presumptive Republican nominee.
On top of that, only four local races are competitive.
And it shows.
According to numbers provided by the county clerk’s office, just 2,511 people had cast early ballots as of Thursday morning, down more than 73 percent compared with 2008.
Statewide, early voting is down about 40 percent.
Some voters could not even be bothered to get on a bus and vote.
According to Lisa Plencner, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area, an attempt by the group to organize a “Flash Vote” at the County-City Building on April 28 fell flat.
The League registered more than 700 young voters prior to the event, but on the day of, she said, none showed up to be bused to the polls.
Early voting ends at noon Monday.
“I think the biggest factor is that we really do not have competitive presidential primaries at this point,” Elizabeth Bennion, associate director of political science at Indiana University South Bend, said of the low turnout so far.
As a result, Bennion said, “there is less of a feeling that primary voters in Indiana will make a big difference in those top-of-the-ticket races.”
The one race that does seem to matter to voters is between Richard Lugar and Richard Mourdock, both candidates for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Both candidates visited South Bend this past week, and the race has generated thousands of dollars in local ad buys, both from the campaigns and outside interest groups.
A look at the number of Republican ballots cast during early voting tells the story.
According to information provided by the county voter registration office, of the 2,511 ballots cast as of Thursday, about 50 percent were Republican.
Typically, that number is closer to 25 percent.
To what extent “raiding” — one party voting in the opposing party’s primary in an attempt to affect the outcome of a particular race — has influenced that number is unknown.
Some have suggested that Democrats might cross over and vote for Mourdock, under the assumption that he would be a weaker candidate than Lugar in November, giving presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Donnelly a better chance at victory.
Bennion is not so sure.
“Political scientists have not found widespread evidence of raiding … in the past,” she said, and Democrats “do, of course, have down-ticket races of their own.”
“So I doubt there will be a huge number of crossovers.”
Staff writer Erin Blasko: