‘Enthusiasm gap’ may turn nation sharply to the right

The nation took a sharp turn away from progressive governance in 2010, with far-right candidates excelling in congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races. Among the leading factors contributing to the results: enthusiasm among Republican voters easily overwhelming Democratic lethargy.

At this trajectory, it’s likely to happen again.

In thinking about the 2012 presidential election, 45% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, while nearly as many, 44%, are less enthusiastic. This is in sharp contrast to 2008 and, to a lesser extent, 2004, when the great majority of Democrats expressed heightened enthusiasm about voting.

Democrats’ muted response to voting in 2012 also contrasts with Republicans’ eagerness. Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans, 58%, describe themselves as more enthusiastic about voting. That is nearly identical to Republicans’ average level of enthusiasm in 2004 (59%) and higher than it was at most points in 2008.

It’s tempting to think the combination of Democratic accomplishments and Republican radicalism would shake up the left. For that matter, the prospect of the United States turning sharply to the right — a right-wing Congress sending extremist legislation to a GOP White House — and putting the nation’s future and much of the progress of the 20th century in severe jeopardy, would seemingly boost Democratic voters’ eagerness.

Apparently, though, that’s not the case. Indeed, it’s not even close — even as GOP officials push the ideological envelope to levels unseen in modern American history, “Democrats’ net enthusiasm (+1) now trails Republicans’ net enthusiasm (+28) by 27 percentage points. By contrast, Democrats held the advantage on net enthusiasm throughout 2008 — on several occasions, by better than 40-point margins.”

At least, that’s the environment right now. A lot can happen in a year, and there’s ample time for attitudes and enthusiasm levels to change. (Gallup has never asked about election enthusiasm 14 months before voting begins, so there’s no real point of comparison to offer predictive value.)

Or maybe they won’t change at all, Democrats will sit on their hands next fall, and we’ll have the most far-right, reactionary federal government in American history. We get what we vote for — and if that’s what the electorate wants, that’s what we’ll get.