Political Animal


September 13, 2012 10:40 AM Enthusiasm Gap Declining

By Ed Kilgore

Sometimes people (notably, but not always, Republicans) talk about an “enthusiasm gap” between the two parties like it’s some sort of a testament to the Truth of the Cause. It is actually, as Nate Silver reminds us again today, just a mechanical assessment of the propensity of registered voters from one party to vote as compared to the other. It’s not a whole lot of people, and much of the usual GOP advantage stems from fairly obvious socio-economic factors bolstered in the last few years by the extraordinary polarization of Americans by age (old folks at every place in every time since voting was invented vote in significantly higher numbers).

Enthusiasm gaps can also be increased, decreased or even erased by events, and that seems to be a large part of the story of Obama’s post-convention “bounce.” The “enthusiasm gap” (again, the gap between registered and likely voter margins) favoring Romney had been running at 3%, as compared to a historical average since 1988 of about one-and-a-half percent. Now it seems to have declined to the historical average, which means the impact of the convention had at least as much to do with base motivation as swing-voter persuasion (though probably owed something to both).

The key thing to understand is that there is nothing particularly mystical about “enthusiasm gaps” or their relative size or absence. It’s measurable. It operates in fairly predictable ways. And it has little or nothing to do with the subjective excitement levels of subgroups of voters. As I like to remind people, no matter how psyched you are to vote to cast the heathen from the temples of power, you only get to vote once, so unless your enthusiasm is communicable to others, it just doesn’t matter.

So if either side going into November 6 thinks it has some “secret” advantage thanks to enthusiasm, they are probably fooling themselves. Indeed, factors affecting last-minute turnout are far more likely to involve GOTV resources or (on the negative side) voter suppresion measures. And even those matter less than in the past (relatively speaking) before of the growing prevalence of early voting.

So even though this is indeed a “base” election more than is usually the case, there’s only so far enthusiasm can take you, and if it does, pollsters will probably notice it.

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.


  • c u n d gulag on September 13, 2012 10:55 AM:

    One thing that can be done to curb enthusiasm, is to suppress the vote.

    Only ONE side is trying to do that.

    Why do they hate enthusiasm?
    And why do they hate voting?

    Because, if your cause has nothing to be enthustiastic about for anyone beyond your base, you try to stop the other side from voting, or try to make the act of voting more difficult to get enthusiastic about.

    And we need to go all out in our GOTV efforts - lest many of us lose that ablility to vote.

    I've started making calls in my local district for our House candidate, Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, who needs to defeat that aweful Teabagger, Nan Hayworth(less).

    What are, or will you be be doing?

  • Peter C on September 13, 2012 11:40 AM:

    I'm glad to see this 'enthusiasm gap' meme discredited. I think it was used to explain results in 2010 which may otherwise have been difficult to explain. It has been used in this cycle to explain why, despite trailing in polls of registered voters, Romney is competitive with 'likely voters'.

    If this election is stolen by the Republicans, the 'enthusiasm gap' will be the smoke-screen they use to convince us that the results are valid.

    Until all our elections are conducted using technology that has a voter-verified paper audit trail (and all elections undergo rigorous auditing after the fact), we must win elections so decisively that election fraud is too risky to attempt. We did that in 2006 and 2008, but were complacent in 2010.

    The more Republicans push the idea of 'voter fraud', the more we need to watch out for 'election fraud'.

  • bdop4 on September 13, 2012 1:24 PM:

    The enthusiasm gap narrows every time Mitt Romney opens his mouth. I think people are finally realizing that this guy would be a huge liability if allowed to take the world stage.

    Two more wars would be guaranteed with his presidency.

  • Varecia on September 13, 2012 5:51 PM:

    Enthusiasm definitely matters in that an enthused supporter is more likely to convert their enthusiasm into concrete volunteer action. Volunteer action means you add yourself to the pool of active volunteers, increasing its capacity to contact more potential supporters, with some of those then becoming active volunteers. And so on. Enthusiasm also translates to more $$ donations, enabling you to increase your reach. It's important. It's very important. I'm already seeing its impact in this regard.