The Enthusiasm Gap


There has been much talk among political columnists and analysts about this year’s “enthusiasm gap.” What is it, what does it mean, and is it a predictor of the upcoming vote?

Elections are always determined by their voter turnout universe.  This is especially relevant when considering midterm elections, like ours in 2010, because the overall participation factor is lower than in presidential years.

It is important to remember that changes in party control happen not so much because people change their minds about whom they support, but whether they actually vote.  In 2008, President Obama and his Democratic Party won because groups favorable to them turned out in huge numbers
African Americans, young people, union members, and regular Democratic Party voters.  Conversely, segments favoring Republicans were down five percentage points.

This election year appears to be transforming into a very different turnout model, with the groups of people who seemingly can’t wait to vote being more inclined to back Republicans.  Public research firms are detecting much less electoral fervor among Democratic support groups.  Thus, the enthusiasm gap.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm headquartered in North Carolina, which regularly commissions polls throughout the nation, has tried to measure the enthusiasm gap and points to places where the divide between motivated Republicans and less energized Democrats is the greatest.

As part of the study, PPP released a list of 23 states where the voter intensity gap between the two parties is high, in an attempt to better define the 2010 turnout model.  In these places, the firm concentrated on testing people less for their voting predispositions, and more for their likelihood to actually cast a ballot in two weeks.  Once determining that the respondent was a high propensity 2010 voter, the preference questions were then asked.

According to PPP, in 2008 voters from these 23 states chose President Obama over John McCain by a cumulative nine percentage points.  Today, segmenting the respondents most likely to vote in 2010 from these same places, they find the margin between Obama and McCain would be only one percentage point.  This is not to say that large numbers of today’s voters are changing their past vote, but rather, the McCain sector is simply more motivated to cast ballots this year than the Obama sector.  Hence, the “enthusiasm gap” registers about an eight point swing in favor of Republicans.

Fourteen states have swings of 10 points or better when factoring in the projected 2010 participation universe in comparison with the actual 2008 vote.  Hawaii is showing the greatest rebound factor for Republicans, with a +19 figure.  This explains why the Republican Party is in the game for both the Governor and 1st Congressional district races.  Michigan is next with a +15, again explaining why they are a virtual lock to win the Governor’s race and very possibly two Congressional seats along with the state House of Representatives.

Wisconsin, trending in similar fashion to neighboring Michigan, is a +14 in GOP enthusiasm.  Polling shows that Senator Russ Feingold (D) trails businessman Ron Johnson (R) and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker is enjoying a discernible lead over his Democratic opponent, while two Congressional seats and both houses of the state legislature could also flip.  In New York, the enthusiasm swing projects to be 13 points and explains why as many as ten Congressional seats and the state Senate are competitive.  Pennsylvania is next with an 11 point intensity gap favoring the GOP.  Thus, Attorney General Tom Corbett is positioned to win the Governor’s race; former Representative Pat Toomey (R), the Senate race; as many as five Congressional districts could convert; and, the GOP is positioned to gain control of their state House of Representatives.  The 11 point gap in Delaware is unlikely to yield any GOP wins, but the same score in New Mexico could lead to a new GOP Governor and victories in as many as two Congressional seats.

The following states are all tied with a 10-point enthusiasm swing: Maine (Governor is in play for GOP), New Hampshire (Senator, Governor, two Congressional races, state Senate, and state House are all competitive), Illinois (Governor, Senator, three Congressional seats), North Carolina (two Congressional seats, state Senate, state House), Florida (Governor, Senator, four U.S. House seats), and Nevada (Governor, Senator, one Congressional seat).

Since the turnout model is all the more important in midterm elections, and energy and enthusiasm is normally the defining element for voter participation, the 2010 Republican results will be better than in a normal full turnout election, simply because the GOP base is motivated and has momentum on their side.  This is the same phenomenon that so favored the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, because their base was rabid in opposition to the Republican Congress (’06) and for President Obama (’08).  Without their same passion returning this year, the voting on November 2nd could well end a great many Democratic political careers.



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