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Once More, With Feeling: The Enthusiasm Gap In Context

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on October 7, 2010.


I apologize if this site has lately become "enthusiasmgap.com," but for Democrats, properly understanding the turnout patterns we are likely to see on November 2--what they do and don't represent--is going to be kind of important to the strategy chosen going forward.

Nate Silver has definitively weighed in on the subject, and reached conclusions that we've been offering for a good long while now: much of the "enthusiasm gap" between the two parties is structural, and has to do with the differential turnout patterns of various demographic groups in midterm elections (with Democrats currently more dependent than in the past on low-midterm-voting groups like under-30s and Latinos); and part of it is that a radicalized conservative base is indeed very excited by their conquest of the GOP:

The enthusiasm gap has more to do with abnormally high levels of Republican interest in the election than with despondent Democrats.

Gallup periodically asks a question about whether voters are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the midterms. When they did so in March, shortly after passage of the health care bill, 57 percent of Democrats said they were more excited than usual about voting in the November elections. This was, in fact, the highest figure that Gallup had ever recorded among Democrats in a midterm year (they began tracking the question in 1994). The problem for Democrats? Some 69 percent of Republicans also answered the question affirmatively. As I wrote at the time, "if the Democrats' total was record-breaking, Republicans just blew the competition away in Usain Bolt-type fashion...."

Also, we should remember that the Democrats usually have some trouble turning out their base at the midterms, since they rely on constituencies, like young voters and racial minorities, who traditionally do not vote in large numbers in these elections. Their 2010 numbers, therefore, mostly reflect a return to normal (in fact, perhaps slightly better than normal). It was 2006, when Democrats were energized by the Iraq War and other perceived excesses of the Bush administration, that was the odd year out.

There are two big takeaways that Democrats must understand from the enthusiasm gap data. The first is that it's a mistake to primarily assign turnout disparities to an insufficiently progressive agenda from the Obama administration. Maybe a different agenda would have been a good idea on policy grounds, or might have had a different impact on the congressional dynamics. But there's really little evidence that the discouragement we see among progressive elites is that widely shared among rank-and-file Democratic voters, whose relative likelihood to vote or not to vote is more easily explainable by structural factors.

Second, Republicans may be benefitting today from the hyper-excitement of its radicalized conservative base. But they will pay a price in the long run for the sort of agenda and rhetoric they are being driven to. That will become immediately evident in the 2012 cycle, when GOPers are forced to disclose their extremist hopes and dreams for the country, in the context of an electorate that is automatically less favorable.

For those who simply can't buy the idea that there hasn't been a calamitious deterioration of support for the Democratic Party since 2008, it's important to remember that the electorate we are likely to see on November 2 would have almost certainly vaulted John McCain to the presidency two years ago. The 2008 coalition isn't dead; it's quite literally not showing up, by the sort of small margins that only matter on election days.

And those who are engaged in GOTV activities this year should take courage in the fact that they are not only helping offset the impact of an excited conservative base right now; they are also setting the stage for a 2012 battle in which the political winds are very likely to change direction, even before Republicans finish celebrating whatever gains they secure on November 2.