JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Who knew the enthusiasm gap was among Mississippi Republicans?
The number of Mississippi voters dropped from the 2008 presidential election by as much as 90,000 people, with Republican votes falling twice as much as Democratic ballots.
In 2008, 1.29 million Mississippians voted, the most ever in a presidential election. Tuesday's turnout, still second-highest, fell 7 percent to 1.2 million. That gap could narrow as affidavit votes are counted and totals are certified.
There were hints that voting would go down. The number of registered voters in the state had fallen 4 percent since 2008 to 1.89 million.
Months before 2012's election, analysts speculated Republicans were more eager to vote than Democrats, calling it an enthusiasm gap. That speculation faded on the national level as voting approached, but the expectation still lingered that Mississippi would trend more Republican than in 2008
"I certainly anticipated that," said state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville. "It appears we may have an enthusiasm gap of our own."
Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 664,000 votes, according to an unofficial count by The Associated Press. In 2008, the GOP's John McCain won 725,000. President Barack Obama's total fell to 523,000, down 30,000 votes from 2008 to 2012. Figures are rounded.
Obama won 43.7 percent of the vote in Mississippi. While that's not close to victory, it's the second-best performance of any Democrat in the last eight election cycles. Only better was the 44.1 percent of Mississippi ballots that Bill Clinton garnered in his 1996 re-election win.
An exit poll hinted that some Republicans weren't entirely sold on Romney. Most voters said they strongly favored their candidate. Roughly 1 in 6 said they liked their choice "but with reservations." People answering that way were overwhelmingly Romney voters.
The poll of 875 Mississippi voters was conducted for the AP and five television networks by Edison Research in a random sample of 15 precincts statewide. Results were subject to a sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.
Black voters appeared eager to defend the president, said Mississippi State University political science professor Marty Wiseman.
"That was largely driven by support of an African-American candidate, particularly in an African-American community where they felt Obama had been mistreated personally," he said.
Observers said they weren't sure why the state trended more Democratic. McDaniel said Republican voters may have stayed away, realizing Romney was safely ahead. Brandon Payne, executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party, noted a U.S. Senate race between Roger Wicker and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove helped draw people to the polls in 2008.
Also unclear is whether a better Democratic showing means Mississippi could become winnable for Democrats.
Some analysts have pointed to Georgia as the next North Carolina, a once solidly Republican state that becomes a battleground. Romney's 53 percent to 45 percent margin in Georgia was close to his 55-44 margin in Mississippi.
"I think the demographics of Mississippi have changed faster than people have recognized," said Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi NAACP. "I think sooner than people realize, it's going to be in play in national politics."
But Mississippi's voters are among the most racially polarized in the country. Only about 1 in 10 white Mississippi voters chose Obama Tuesday, while more than 9 in 10 black voters backed the president.
The share of black Mississippians is slowly rising. But if racial and party identification remain synonymous in Mississippi, it could be a long time before a Democrat carries the state's six electoral votes.
Political analysts commonly say a Democrat starts with 40 percent of the vote, thanks to black voters. "It's getting the other 10 percent that's the challenge," Wiseman said
Pointing to Republican domination among state officeholders and increasing success among local officials, Payne said he's "confident" in the GOP's future.
"I still think that we will continue to win elections," he said.