Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The enthusiasm gap gap

There may be no squishier measurement in the metrics of American politics than the enthusiasm gap, that loosey-goosey way of making a quantifiable out of something that’s more ephemeral than an opinion or a belief. Recently — in the days before last week’s primaries and the ones to come today — it’s gained attention for what it’s thought to say about the mood of the American voter in 2010.

Some have all but rolled up the tumbrels for the Democrats, stating that the red caps of the GOP will definitely make big gains this November. We’ve heard from all the usual suspects, from USA Today/Gallup to Washington Post/ABC News to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation.

Among those tolling the bell are Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight and (in a well-articulated Aug. 5 piece) Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics. Their projections are supported by strong Republican turnout in last Tuesday’s primaries in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan, and also, in large part, because of a perceived heightened enthusiasm by Republicans, a passion expected to translate into higher turnout than the Democrats a few months from now.

That makes the assumption, of course, that Democrats (in their more traditionally messy, fractious, disorganized way) won’t summon enough enthusiasm to show up at the polls in the fall. That’s one problem with enthusiasm-gap polling: it’s necessarily a captive of the snapshot mentality. By virtue of the underlying evanescent emotion that supports it, the enthusiasm-gap theory is dangerously subject to change. It’s less reliable than the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll, which, in its sampling of the American mood, grounds itself in not much more than which side of the bed John & Jan Q. Public got out of in the morning.

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The thinking goes that Republicans will turn out in greater numbers than the Democrats, who “historically” sit the midterms out. It’s true enough that in midterm elections and the generals, Republican voters have “historically” been older voters, with a deeper civic connection to the voting experience than their younger Democratic counterparts.

And the prevailing wisdom says that Republicans this year will be especially animated by outrage and a desire for payback. “Nothing warms the spirit like revenge,” Nate Silver observed on Aug. 4, as part of his rationale why the Democrats may be vulnerable in November.

It’s a truism that Democrats outnumber Republicans in pure party registrations (a fact that may or may not matter at all considering the number of independent voters, unregistered voters or first-time voters). But whatever the D-to-R ratio is, there’s one that’s more problematic for the Republicans than the one representing voter registrations. A bigger problem for the GOP is a light-to-heat ratio that they’ve done precious little to change in the last two years. In terms of how they do business, and the lengths they’ve proven they’ll go to to prevent the majority party from doing its business, the Republicans haven’t demonstrated much light, but way too much heat.

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Consider how the Republicans in Congress have done their best to block legislation advanced by the Obama White House, thrown up roadblocks out of nothing more than sheer obstinacy.

From their responsibility for two ruinous wars to disparities in drug sentencing they’ve supported for years; from their own fiscal mismanagement to the racial and ethnic polarization they’ve cultivated; from opposing the unemployment benefits Americans need to keep food on the table to blaming the unemployed for being unemployed in the worst U.S. economy for generations, the Republicans have as much to answer for in November as the Democrats. And maybe more.

“Nothing warms the spirit like revenge,” Nate Silver says. But Silver’s smart enough to know that nothing clouds the judgment like revenge, either. The Republicans, whether they believe it or not, are on the verge of being fully consumed by hubris — so blind to their own obstructionist actions they can’t see the effect those actions have had on the people they expect to vote for them; so tone-deaf to anything but the volume of their own screaming that they’ve forgotten the need to make a fresh message, a new way of governing, part of that scream; so enamored of the historical certainty of a swing in their direction as a political fact that they’ve overlooked the predictably unpredictable nature of the electorate that put them in the minority in the first place.

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“Sometimes, American politics resembles a screaming contest, and Republicans -- though fewer in number -- are screaming a little louder right now,” Silver wrote.

But screaming louder in a 24/7 media environment doesn’t make you better or more electable, it just makes you ... louder. It’s merely proof of the obvious: The enthusiasm of revenge is bitter at the core. The Republicans know it and they don’t care. They’re unhappy. They’re angry. They want their country back. We got it. And guess what? All that latent bile still might not be enough. There’s evidence that the American people see through the GOP rage, but don’t see much behind it.

Chris of Rights, commenting at Five Thirty Eight: “The problem for the Republicans is this: while the conservatives have plenty of reasons to vote against the Democrats, the Republicans have yet to give reasons for the conservative to vote for them. You don't win elections by trying to get people to vote against your opponent (see John Kerry, 2004 and John McCain, 2008 for recent examples). You win elections by getting people to vote for you. Until the Republicans can convince conservatives they deserve our vote, the Democrats have little to fear.”

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And for all the forecasts of Democratic destruction 11 weeks hence based on perceptions of enthusiasm, some people have advanced a tantalizing scenario that completely undercuts the results of enthusiasm-gap polling altogether, based on the methodology of the polling itself.

John, also at Five Thirty Eight, throws this in:

“The main problem we have right now is most polling is following an archaic method that is now underestimating the mobility of the younger class of people, so we get these polls that 5 or 10 years back had small margins of error based on sample data, but are now claiming the same margin with a different demographic. Seriously, what person under 30 uses a landline, or answers any call from a number they don't know? I don't know a single one, so the people that do it are most likely rural in nature, skewing figures.”

Note to pollsters: You can’t know whether people are enthusiastic or not if you don’t ask them.

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When it’s said and done, the enthusiasm gap may reflect two different styles, as much existential as political.

“The Republican base is part of a conservative movement,” former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich wrote Aug. 4 in Salon. “The Democratic base, by contrast, is a loose coalition that elects a new president and then goes home, expecting the new president to deliver miracles. ... A movement connects the dots across issues and reveals a larger wrong that must be righted.”

There’s the challenge facing both parties in the runup to this election, and the next one. Republicans confront the need to channel their tiresome discontent into productive, proactive ways of addressing the needs of a deeply battered and skeptical electorate, not merely exploit that skepticism for a short-term gain that may not work this fall, and may not be redeemable in 2012.

Democrats need to borrow, organizationally and tactically, from the GOP, and work like hell to thwart the doomsayers with the silver bullet of turnout, shoring up relations with a cynical Democratic base — the once-true believers who feel burned by the bailouts, the troop buildup in Afghanistan, and health-care reform that’s less than what was promised, and which may not be as good as advertised.

And in their rush to either embrace or dismiss that spongy, spasmodic metric, neither party can afford to forget: The only enthusiasm-gap numbers that really count are the ones we get on the night of Election Day.

Image credits: Polling place, polling graphics: Gallup. Party affiliation pie graph: JuWiki2 (public domain). Apple iPhone4: Apple via C|Net.

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