Political Animal


September 20, 2012 10:52 AM “Enthusiasm” and Turnout

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • inkadu on September 20, 2012 11:47 AM:


    1. Entered my comment.

    2. Previewed without entering captcha.

    3. Hit post.

    4. Got sent to a small advertising page.

    5. Backed the browser up to the preview page.

    6. Hit post again.

    7. Was told I didn't enter a captcha.

    8. Hit link to return to my original comment.

    9. My original comment is gone.

    10. Post this.

    11. You read it.

    Anyway, my brilliant comment was that Mitt isn't getting a lot of enthusiasm from upper-tier Republicans. Every gaffe is being attacked, derided, or apologized for by fellow GOP'ers... that to me is a more interesting enthusiasm gap, because, yes, you're right, those undecided voters depress the hell out of me and I'd rather not have to think about them.

  • T2 on September 20, 2012 12:02 PM:

    off topic....just saw a photo from Mars showing a mystery rock in front of the rover. It strangely resembles........an Egyptian pyramid...

  • Ronald on September 20, 2012 12:06 PM:

    how many campaign offices each candidate has in each of the states is a reasonable indicator on how strongly they take the GOTV effort. By that measure, Obama almost doubles the effort of the Romney campaign. That, along with growing enthusiasm among Democrats for actually getting out and voting portends well for President Obama.

  • howard on September 20, 2012 12:07 PM:

    i'm enthusiastic all right: i'm enthusiastic about kicking gop butt in this election.

    as for obama, not so much: he is now, always has been, and always will be, too much of a centrist for me.

    but the dangerous right-wing know-nothingism of the republican party must be defeated, and about that, i couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic.

  • c u n d gulag on September 20, 2012 12:15 PM:

    As far as GOTV, supposedly Ralph Reed has a list of tens of millions of Evangelical Christians that his Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) will be calling, sending mail pieces to, and knocking on doors.

    Now, that's A LOT of people!

    A few questions:
    - How many of them are Conservative and will vote Republican?
    - How many of them might be turned-off by Romney, because he's a Mormon?
    - How many of them may not go vote because of Romney's and Ryans anti-Christian, Ayn Rand objectivist views of the world?
    - How many of them might be Liberal Evangelicals and vote for President Obama?
    - And finally, who the feck on this planet would trust Ralph Reed?

    So, the Republicans need to ask themselves this about Ralph Reed before giving him money:
    - Is this worth the money?
    - Based on the questions above, what's the ROI?

    I'd trust Obama's efforts to GOTV much more than I ever would Ralph "The Great Christian Grifter" Reed's.
    Talk about your amoral individuals!

  • T2 on September 20, 2012 12:26 PM:

    many churches front for GOP organizations and it's done blatantly and it's also done quietly.
    My late mom's methodist pastor also happened to be the local Republican Party chief.
    Church mailers routinely outlined GOP positions and presented them as good Christian positions, etc. The church mailing list was the same as the local GOP mailing list. For older, white congregations, having your preacher tell you that taxes are bad is strong stuff.

  • Peter C on September 20, 2012 12:30 PM:

    The 'Enthusiasm Gap' is a concept that was invented to explain the results of the 2010 election which were surprisingly lopsided. It was not mentioned in 2006 or 2008; it's a one sided concept that applies only in cases when Republicans benefit.

    I doubt it actually happened. In Ohio in 2004, urban voters turned out in record numbers and waited hours in lines. However, we were told that rural voters also turned out in record numbers, although no one noticed at the time. The news reports were of long lines in the cities and '10 out of 10' terrorist warnings in Republican counties which required election observers to be expelled from vote-counting areas. There were no reports of lines in rural counties, just overwhelming turnout that only the paperless voting machines noticed.

    The 2010 results were explained by an overwhelming wave of 'tea baggers', but honestly, I've not met that many. I attended a tea-bagger rally in New Jersey on Labor Day in 2010. It happened, but it was not huge. There were a large concentration of super-nutty people with tea bags stapled to their hats, but it was a large concentration of a fairly modest gathering. It was MUCH smaller than the anti-war marches I walked in in Manhattan and Newark in 2006(which actually got less press coverage).

    We need to start watching the rural counties, at least until we all vote with paper ballots (or machines with a voter-verified paper audit trail) which are audited regularly. Then we will know whether what we are told about the 'enthusiasm gap' really is actually true. For me, at this point, it is an explanation of the results where the results are the only information given. It's a lazy explanation with very thin substantiation that smells more like spin than reality.

  • kentropic on September 20, 2012 12:37 PM:

    Enthusiasm and GOTV efforts are great, but what about the basic logistics of collecting and tabulating the votes themselves? Maybe I've missed it, but I haven't seen a word recently about the security of electronic voting machines and tabulating software. Are these no longer live issues?

    Given the state of global cyber-security these days, I'm feeling none too sanguine about the ability of state and county election officials to insulate the process from a (hypothetical) well-financed team aiming to tip the result toward its sponsors' desires behind the scenes. Hell, in my home state of Penna., they can't even figure out what rules are going to apply at the polls in six weeks.

  • Jay C on September 20, 2012 12:48 PM:

    @ c u n d gulag:

    Beg to differ: First of all, any Christians out there who actually ARE "Liberal Evangelicals" probably won't be on Ralph Reed's lists anyway: he and his ilk make damn sure that the Religious Right or at least the parts of it they influence) stays as "Right" as they can. And there are a LOT of FFC-sympathetic folks Out There, even if they're not a huge factor in populous "swing states". And unenthusiastic as those folks may be about the R&R ticket, after being barraged from here on in by hysterical anti-Obama "War On Religion" propaganda BS ad nauseam, they WILL be motivated to GOTV.

    The positive news is that in the country as a whole, the nutcase/fanatic Right is - fortunately - still a minority, and countervailing GOTV efforts can still nullify a lot of their malign influence. So far....

  • Big Texan on September 20, 2012 3:44 PM:

    The side resorting to dishonesty is getting really desperate. Every Romney statement will be translated into a gaffe and the media will recite the talking points -- every week until the election.

  • Mark H. on September 20, 2012 3:48 PM:

    I have always been skeptical that the robot-like Mitt Romney has been able to generate an enthusiasm advantage for the republicans. The best evidence of actual enthusiasm so far has been the Nielsen ratings for the viewership of the conventions. The democrats had significantly larger numbers on every night of the convention. I provide the actual numbers at my blog http://politibeat.blogspot.com.

  • PeteKent on September 20, 2012 5:34 PM:

    The problem here is the same problem we have seen with so much of the other polling: turnout models that suggest 2012 will be like 2008, an extraordinary year for Democrats, as opposed to the more normal models of 2000 and 2004.

    These flawed turnout models essentially explain the President's lead in the recent VA and OH polls. The recent Fox News polls along with Quinnipiac are only the latest example of polls that have significantly overestimated Democratic turnout in those states especially when compared to voter registration figures in those states. Ohio polling has been particularly scandalous as it is very important to the President's chances that he create a bandwagon effect, a sense of inevitability about his victory and a GOP defeat in OH is seen as fatal to Romney chances.

    The Quninnipiac polls in Wisconsin and especially Virginia were methodological travesties.
    Democrats are oversampled by 14 points when you compare the poll sample with actual voter registration in Virginia (VA GOP has net 3 point registration advantage, but poll shows Dem sample to be +11 over GOP). If you used the right sample, Romney wins the Old Dominion in a walk. Consider that this same poll has Kaine up by + 7, a clear outlier. Most other polls show an essentially tied race. The bias in Wisconsin is less: only 4 points but enough to swing the state back to tied.

    The latest national Pew Poll cited above is a real stinker. It has a net Democrat lean of +9 (+8 with leaners). Only by oversampling Democrats can you get the President lead to 8 percent over Mr. Romney.

    The 2010 Mid Terms were a GOP rout in terms of results and turnout. And while Democrat enthusiasm is said to have picked up since the Conventions, there is justification for at best a middling turnout model that favors the Democrats (perhaps like ’04 –even or ’00 D+3). Mr. Obama is nowhere near as popular as he was in 2008 and Mr. Romney is far more popular than McCain was among not only Republicans but also Independents. In general polls only find a significant Obama lead this year when they oversample Democrats.

    Because GOP voters don’t pay much attention to polls and to the "lamestream media" that publishes them, these polls will not have much effect except, perhaps to induce surprise among the DC chattering classes on November 7.

    @petekent01 on Twitter