“Enthusiasm” and Turnout

As I’ve often observed, more nonsense is written about voter “enthusiasm” or the lack thereof than most any aspect of American politics. The need for it is cited as a justification for all sorts of polarizing political strategies and tactics that might or might not make sense otherwise, particularly negative advertising and catering (or to use the more loaded term, pandering) to organized identity or advocacy groups which are thought to be enthusiasm brokers.

It’s fairly well understood, of course, that highly visible efforts to generate partisan voter “enthusiasm” run the risk of backfiring by (a) repelling undecided voters and/or (b) helping the partisan enemy motivate its own troops. It seems less-well understood that any “enthusiasm” beyond that necessary to get voters to the polls is a costly waste. Part of the problem is that us Political Animals instinctively mistrust voters who aren’t as passionate about it as we are, and often tend to view “undecideds” as either stupid, ignorant or anti-social. So we tend to forget that “good” and “bad” voters have and should have equal weight.

Now and again, however, you have an election or a cycle in which opinion is so pre-polarized and the contending forces are so equal in size that “enthusiasm” is a much bigger deal than it usually is. We’re in one right now. And for all the disagreement (nicely summarized by TNR’s Nate Cohn today as “Gallup and Rasmussen v. the World”) about the exact status of the presidential horse-race, there’s broader agreement that the “enthusiasm gap” Republicans were counting on this year has disappeared or even been reversed.

That’s true even according to Gallup, whose polls (at least in the last few cycles) are usually an oasis of relative comfort for the GOP. A new analysis of voters in 12 “swing states” based on the latest Gallup/USAToday survey by Gallup’s Lydia Saad and Jeffrey Jones shows that the percentage of self-identified Democrats in these states calling themselves
“extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about this election has grown from 49% in June to 68% today; Republican “enthusiasm” over the same period has grown more modestly, from 52% to 62%.

Now in looking at this and other measurements of “enthusiasm,” which are all pretty much showing the same trends, it’s important to understand that this Democratic advantage or parity in willingness to vote is being measured prior to the application of much of Team Obama’s much-vaunted GOTV program. And while some GOTV efforts involve enthusiasm-boosting, GOTV is most basically understood as “harvesting” marginal voters, thus improving the “yield” beyond anything that you might predict from polls measuring “enthusiasm.” These GOTV efforts, moreover, are largely “under-the-radar,” which reduces the potential backlash from helping Team Mitt get its troops all lathered up. The ad-heavy pro-GOP strategy suffers from a relative lack of stealthiness, though presumably whatever early-voting and Election Day voter suppression plans the GOP has in store for us will be relatively stealthy and perhaps not that well comprehended until it’s too late.

I’m in no position at the moment to measure the actual quality of each team’s strategy and resources for getting “its” vote to the polls (or in the case of Team Mitt, of potholing the road to the polls in unfavorable precincts). But it does appear Democrats no longer need to worry about an “enthusiasm gap,” and that the Obama campaign’s decision so many moons ago to invest an unusual high percentage of its money in GOTV could now pay off big time.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.