It’s the Turnout, Stupid.

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Dominating the front page of South Carolina’s largest newspaper this morning is a prediction that turnout for today’s Democratic primary could break all records. Officials are expecting as many as 350,000 Democratic voters; in 2004, there were about 290,000. (By comparison, turnout for last Saturday’s Republican contest was 445,000, which marked a sharp 22% drop from record levels.) Here’s what The State’s John O’Connor has to say:

Early returns are encouraging. Mike Cinnamon, executive director of the Richland County election commission, said there were long lines of absentee voters Friday. Cinnamon said there were about 700 Republican absentee votes and at least twice that in Democratic votes.

The State Election Commission has issued more Democratic absentee ballots than Republican, a reversal of typical elections.

Last week — in ice, rain and cold — Republican turnout dipped about 22 percent from the all-time high in 2000. About 445,000 voted in last Saturday’s Republican primary.

Few think that many Democrats will turn out, but the three candidates, Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina U.S. Sen. John Edwards, have drawn larger crowds this week than most Republican rallies.

Will this kind of enthusiasm, which has happened in other early-voting states as well, put South Carolina into play for the Democrats come November? Probably not, the newspaper suggests. No Democrat has won South Carolina’s vote for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

A reminder: South Carolina does not register its voters by party affiliation, and any registered voter can vote in whichever primary he or she chooses, but not both.

A word to our Swampland readers who live (and vote) here in South Carolina: We’d love to hear from you what you are seeing at your polling places.

UPDATE: This must-read election day tale from Swampland commenter/correspondent TeresaKopec:

My husband and I just got back from voting at our polling place in Spartanburg, SC at 10:30am. There were about 10 people in line (seven African-American, three white). The polling ladies said that things had been steady all morning.

I intended to vote for Obama this morning and my husband for Hillary. But on the way to the polling place, my five year old daughter asked who we were voting for. I said, “Mommy is voting for a nice man named Barak Obama and Daddy is voting for a nice woman named Hillary Clinton.” She replied, “But I thought only men were presidents.” Out of the mouths of babes. So I took her in with me and let her push the button on the electronic screen for Hillary. (My husband ended up switching and voting for Obama at the last minute so it all evened out.)

UPDATE AT 11 PM: Turnout zoomed past even those rosy estimates (and, perhaps more remarkably, last Saturday’s GOP totals), reaching more than 500,000.