Voters, motivation, and the ‘enthusiasm gap’

VOTERS, MOTIVATION, AND THE ‘ENTHUSIASM GAP’…. In the abstract, groups of voters are motivated by two forces, which aren’t mutually exclusive. Voters can, for example, feel excited about supporting their preferred candidates because those candidates have performed well and delivered on key priorities/promises.

Voters can also feel motivated when they’re disgusted by other party’s candidates and agenda, and get engaged to prevent those rivals from succeeding.

This year, the Democratic Party really hopes that it can benefit from both. On the one hand, they argue, Democratic policymakers have an impressive list of accomplishments, mirroring the platform they ran on — economic recovery, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan overhaul, withdrawing troops from Iraq, restoring the nation’s global stature, advances on civil rights, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanded stem-cell research, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. On the other hand, the Democratic argument goes, Republicans have moved sharply to the right, and generally act as if the GOP has gone stark raving mad.

It’s a recipe for Democratic voter motivation, right? One might think so, but as Frank Rich notes in his column today, “the enthusiasm gap remains real,” and it benefits Republicans.

Tea Partiers will turn up at the polls, and not just in Kentucky. Democrats are less energized in part because even now the president has not fully persuaded many liberal populists in his own party that he is on their side. The suspicion lingers that a Wall Street recovery, not job creation, was his highest economic priority upon arriving at a White House staffed with Goldman alumni. No matter how hard the administration tries to sell health care reform and financial reform as part of the nation’s economic recovery, these signal achievements remain thin gruel for those out of work.

The unemployment numbers, unlikely to change drastically by November, will have more to say than any of Tuesday’s results about what happens on Election Day this year. Yes, the Tea Party is radical, its membership is not enormous, and its race problem is real and troubling. But you can’t fight an impassioned opposition merely with legislative actions that may bear fruit in the semi-distant future. If the Democrats can’t muster their own compelling response to the populist rage out there, “Randslide” may reside in our political vocabulary long after “Arlen Specter” is leaving “Jeopardy” contestants stumped.

That sounds about right. Democrats have a reasonable pitch — “We’ve delivered on a progressive agenda, and Republicans have become radical nutjobs” — but the party is making it under difficult circumstances and repeating it to an angry electorate.

The midterms are less than six months away. Whether Dems will use them wisely — sprinting to the finish line and generating excitment among Democratic voters — remains to be seen.