The “Enthusiasm Gap” For 2014

Maybe I’ve missed an earlier survey, but today’s from Pew/USAT is the first I’ve seen this cycle measuring partisan “enthusiasm” about voting in 2014 (there’s also a test of “optimism,” which I find even less enlightening). Seems the “enthusiasm gap” favoring Republicans that got a lot of attention going into 2010 persists, though it’s smaller (53% of Republicans plus leaners are “very enthusiastic” about voting, as opposed to 47% of Democrats plus leaners).

Now to revisit some earlier observations about the “enthusiasm gap,” the proclivity of marginal (i.e., non-certain) voters to turn out is indeed a big deal, particularly in relatively low-turnout midterms, but it’s not very clear that “enthusiasm” as a subjective emotion has much to do with it. So long as Republicans maintain their recent advantages among whiter and older voters, they’ll have a turnout–and probably an “enthusiasm”–advantage, no matter what else is going on.

But subjective “enthusiasm” does not give a voter an additional vote, and isn’t necessarily valuable once it passes the point when a marginal voter becomes a certain voter. Indeed, “enthusiasm,” like “optimism,” can even become a handicap if it blinds a campaign–as appears to have happened with Mitt Romney’s in 2012–to its actual condition.

I do think Democratic “enthusiasm” will matter in 2014 simply because pro-Democratic demographic groups are significantly less likely to vote in midterms. But Republicans? I’m really not sure it’s that big a deal unless it reaches snake-dance-to-the-polls levels, and there’s some evidence that this sort of “base” excitement can actually alienate persuadable “swing” voters.

So you can keep your eye on such numbers going forward, but I wouldn’t get too enthusiastic about them. This is a quality that is as overrated in politics as it sometimes is in religion. Generally speaking, handling snakes is dangerous.

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.