Voter turnout and the enthusiasm gap: myths and realities

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Jan 04, 2010 at 11:45

Entering an election year, the Democratic Party faces a problem with its relatively less enthusiastic voting base.  However, the extent of that problem is often exaggerated, especially when compared to long-term trends.  In fact, enthusiasm woes are currently costing Democrats at most 3% nationally, and possibly as little as 2%.  Further, that 2-3% problem mainly appears to be caused by a lack of enthusiasm among the part of the base that votes Democratic due to economic fragility, rather than for the part of the base that votes Democratic for more ideologically oriented reasons.

More in the extended entry.

Chris Bowers :: Voter turnout and the enthusiasm gap: myths and realities
1. Isn't the problem worse than 2-3%?
Two recent polls suggest that Democrats are losing more than just 2-3% from a lack of enthusiasm among the base.

First, Daily Kos polling currently shows that 54% of Democratic self-identifiers say they will "definitely" or "probably" vote in 2010, compared to 75% of Republican self-identifiers.  When this enthusiasm gap is factored into the Daily Kos generic congressional ballot, a Democratic advantage of 38%-35% becomes a Republican advantage of 43%-38%, for a net shift of 8%.

Second, Bloomberg polling (PDF, page 5) currently shows that Democrats lead 36%-35% among all adults, but that Republicans lead 42%-38% among those most likely to vote.  For this poll, Republicans gain 5% due to relatively greater enthusiasm.

However, while the Daily Kos and Bloomberg polls are useful data points when measuring of the general voter turnout problem Democrats face, neither are good measures of the specific enthusiasm problems they face in 2010.  This is because Democratic voting groups are always less likely to vote than Republican groups, even in Presidential elections, and even in 2008.  For example, African-Americans, the strongest Democratic demographic of all, have always turned out at lower levels than whites, even in 2008 with Barack Obama on the ballot.

Demographics that vote Democratic tend to be relatively young, relatively poor, and relatively less registered to vote.  All of this translates into lower turnout for Democratic voting groups.  This is a problem Democrats always face, and is more endemic to the state of our public sphere and civic space than to the actions of any political party.  Properly measuring the 2010 enthusiasm gap requires determining how much worse than normal the turnout problem is for Democrats, rather than how large the problem is overall (which is what Daily Kos and Bloomberg are doing).

2. No, it really is 2-3%
Democracy Corps is the only polling outfit currently measuring the specific 2010 Democratic enthusiasm gap.  In their most recent, mid-November poll (PDF), DCorps provided a subset of "drop off" voters who actually voted in 2008, but are not likely to vote in 2010.  When it comes to determining the specific 2010 enthusiasm gap, this is more accurate than measuring the difference between Democratic performance among all registered voters (or all adults) and among likely voters.

What Democracy Corps found is that "drop-off" voters favor Democrats by a whopping 53%-36%.  This compares to a narrow, 47%-45% Democratic advantage of likely voters.   If drop-off voters were included in the overall sample, Democrats would lead 48%-43%.  While this is only one data point, it means that the enthusiasm gap is currently costing Democrats about 3% nationally.

3. Midterms electorates are worse for Democrats than presidential electorates.
There is a further caveat to these numbers.  Long-term data from the census bureau indicates that the turnout gap between Americans above and below the age of 45 widens significantly in mid-term elections.  For example, over the last nine Presidential elections, Americans aged 45-64 turned out, on average, at a rate 12.7% higher than Americans aged 25-44.  However, in mid-term elections, the average gap over the last nine cycles has been 17.1%.  Given that Obama won 55% of the vote among Americans aged 25-44, but only 50% of the vote among Americans aged 45-64, this "natural" turnout problem facing Democrats in mid-term elections also makes the specific problems they face in 2010 appear more pronounced than it actually is.  Midterms electorates are worse for Democrats than presidential electorates.

4. Mind the gap
One more quick note--quite a few bloggers are citing the Daily Kos poll showing that only 54% of self-identified Democrats who are registered to vote indicate that they are likely to vote in 2010.  While that sounds pretty bad, the truth is that less than 40% of all voters have turned out in every midterm election since 1974.  If 54% of self-identified Democrats who are registered to vote actually turned out in 2010, then Democrats would end up with about 64 seats in the Senate and close to 300 in the House.  A 54% turnout rate among Democrats who are registered to vote would be fucking enormous for a midterm election, and as such is a terrible data point to use when arguing that the Democratic base is depressed.  What matters in the Daily Kos poll is the gap between Democrats and Republicans, not the overall numbers.

5. Who are the drop-off voters?
Still, no matter which way the numbers are sliced, Democrats are facing an enthusiasm gap that is worse than normal.  It would be helpful if there were more polls like Democracy Corps measuring this group, so that we had more data to determine who they are and what makes them tick.  What little data we have from Democracy Corps indicates that they tend to be young and unemployed, and that they are more likely to be female and non-white than other voters.  None of this is very surprising--these voters are not seeing any improvement in their lives, and so perhaps they are growing more cynical about participating at all.

The Democracy Corps poll also does not indicate that this group is particularly left-wing. Among the drop-off voters, 22% self-identify as liberal, compared to 19% of the sample as a whole.  As such, what little data we have indicates that Democrats are facing a stronger than usual enthusiasm gap because they aren't delivering for the base that votes Dem due to their economic fragility, rather than for the part of the base that votes for more ideologically oriented reasons.

That isn't to say that ideology isn't actually a problem for Democrats in D.C.  If, as a group, they had been more left-wing, they might very well have passed legislation and policy that would have done better for the economically fragile.  The problem isn't passing centrist, neoliberal policy that will anger ideologically oriented activists, but in passing centrist, neoliberal policy that won't make anyone's lives better.

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So (4.00 / 3)
only 54% of self-identified Democrats who are registered to vote indicate that they are likely to vote in 2010.

What I'd like to know is how this compares to other polls of the same thing.

E.g., in the 2006 midterms, 10 months out, how many self-identified Democrats who are registered to vote indicated that they were likely to vote?

This is a really important point (4.00 / 2)
Democratic strategy going from here on out is different depending on whether or not the "enthusiasm gap" is due more to Democratic voters who would normally vote staying home or to Republican voters being unusually energized this time around.  (I think it's a bit of each.)  For all I know, it could be due partially to non-white voters being cold towards any Democratic politician who appears to run away from Obama.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Great analysis (0.00 / 0)
The real question is will an improving economy and the passage of an unpopular HCR Bill 10 months before the November election work to blunt GOP anger, and as a result lesson the current marginal advantage.

What "improving economy"? (0.00 / 0)
Right now, for the overwhelming part of the population, the economy isn't improving! Those people don't care about a rising GDP, or stock shares, thy only see staganting income and a horrible job market. And the Dem lawmakers don't seem to be willing to do anything meaningful to improve that situation. So, why should voters become more happy until November? Right now, Dems have nothing in the pipeline that will be popular, and time is running short.  

[ Parent ]
Yeah, (0.00 / 0)
let's just phone this one in.

Good post.

That is the crux - Ideological liberals know that these policies aren't making people's lives better (4.00 / 4)
The problem isn't passing centrist, neoliberal policy that will anger ideologically oriented activists, but in passing centrist, neoliberal policy that won't make anyone's lives better.

Liberals may by November talk themselves into going to the polls in November because they feel they have to do something. Their ideoolgical commitment will override their sense of futility and anger.  Though some neoliberals are happy with this health care bill.  But those who are non ideologically oreinted, you have to overcome their sense that it's all futile and everyday people can't fight the metaphoric city hall.

Those at the other end of the social and economic sphere just have this amorphous feeling that things are not so good, so why bother voting. They are feeling...." Look after all 2008 didn't matter.  My life isn't better and there is no sign on the horizon that it will get better."

After the 1994 election,  pollster Celinda Lake did some polling for Emily's List of who the electorate was and wasn't.  She did research on the drop off voters from 1992.  What she found was that there was a very large group of unmarried - single, widowed, divorced - women voters who stayed home in 1994. And that economically they bunched toward the lower end of the socio economic scale.  That amongst all the groups - men, minorities-  their drop off was the biggest.

It might be worth contacting her to see if she still has that data - or if she doesn't just to ask her some questions and see how she remembers it.

Having been politically involved then and now, I can just tell you this feels in some ways like then....but there was also the House Banking scandal...which did have an impact then that at least for the moment we don't have now.

If abortion coverage is destroyed passing this health care bill, women, (even the non ideologiacl ones)  will just feel once again progress is being made while there are tire marks all over their bodies. It may be inchoate their anger and abandonment but I think women again will just stay home.  

And remember in the primaries, Obama got the creative class; Hillary got the blue collar Democratic base including the elderly.  And if the Republicans are effective at making an issue of the Medicare cuts then we have ceded another part of the Demcoratic base.

The Mediciare "savings" are a direct result of the deals the White House cut with industry players like AHIP and Pharma...the place to save meony in healthcare is with the profits of industry players and the administration has chosen not to do that.

They are operating under the illusion that Pharma and AHIP etc will keep supporting them and not Republicans is this health care bill passes.  I think they could be very wrong in that.  If as November draws near and Republicans look poised to make significant gains, then Pharma and AHIP money will start to flow to them as well.  It's just basic politics. Protect yourself from all sides.

And there is time to make things at least seem better...but economically we have to have things on an up curve or it will be bad.  Actually in 1994 the economy was already showing signs of improvement so it didn't play as big an impact.  

PS. If you want Celinda's email, email me and I'll give it to you.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

This is very impt (0.00 / 0)
Like the other commenter, we need context. We need to tailor this year's agenda towards what those voters want (even the jobs program).

[ Parent ]
What Chris said (4.00 / 3)

The problem isn't passing centrist, neoliberal policy that will anger ideologically oriented activists, but in passing centrist, neoliberal policy that won't make anyone's lives better.

Another point. (4.00 / 1)
What percent of self-identified, registered Dems actually have turned up to vote in mid-terms in years past?  And how does the current 54% stack up against that?  In my opinion, that is probably the biggest clue and is being entirely missed by most pundits/bloggers...

OK, but how about the trend? Especially regarding party ID? (4.00 / 1)

Imho we have to take the larger downward trend for the Dems into considration, too, we can't simply assume that the situation will stagnate until November. And if we look at party ID polls of the last decades, we see that the two huge successes of the GOP came when the right wingers managed to close the party ID gap:

Party ID polls 1990-2007

 Well, and now polls show that the gap closes again:

"Currently, 35.5% of American adults view themselves as Democrats. That’s down from 36.0 a month ago and from 37.8% in October. Prior to December, the lowest total ever recorded for Democrats was 35.9%, a figure that was reached twice in 2005. See the History of Party Trends from January 2004 to the present.

The number of Republicans inched up by a point in December to 34.0%. That’s the highest total for Republicans since December 2007, just before the 2008 presidential campaign season began."

So, I think, any optimism now is totally misguided. The Dems are heading towards disaster! They shouldn't fool themselves into believing that November will be only a mild slap by the voters. They need to act now to reverse the trend, no tooth fairy or superhero will safe them!


This: (0.00 / 0)
"The problem isn't passing centrist, neoliberal policy that will anger ideologically oriented activists, but in passing centrist, neoliberal policy that won't make anyone's lives better."

Yes! This is what we need to keep our eyes on. This is the disease that will kill the party; the disaffection of left-leaning activists and voters is merely a symptom (though one with the potential to grease the skids for the longer-term decline.)

The Democrats simply cannot afford in the long run to be the new moderate Republicans- that will motivate precisely nobody to vote for them. The moneyed elite will always believe its interests to be better served by the real thing no matter how well they are also served by the DINOs. If the Democrats don't do much of anything for the rest of us, their turn in the limelight will once again be brief.

The 2 parties are really just a mechanism of social control (0.00 / 0)

There is zero chance that our system can be fixed through the officially-approved mechanisms. Whether overtly recognized or not, there's a war going on - the US ruling class against all the rest of us. It's essentially a class war. The rulers want you to remain a Democrat, because the D's are a ruling-class institution, whose job is guiding the Dem half of the populace in paths that are safe for the rulers. To remain a Dem voter, and to swallow whatever slop the party dishes up, is to passively assent to this arrangement.

The primary focus should be on resisting & criticizing the system, not on adapting yourself to it. We should all be talking with our friends & family about the very real things that are wrong. We should be trying to make whatever contribution we can to elevating political consciousness. Accepting the slop of the Dem Party is the opposite of all that: it deadens political consciousness, & only makes our enemies stronger.

Voting for candidates only works when there are decent candidates - but that's not our situation. We betray ourselves if we fail to recognize that.

Well, looking at it historically, the "solution" has to be a break from the officially-approved mechanisms. It must have the form of a broad movement based on the interests of the bottom 80-90% of the population. It has to be what they call "radical" politics - something that big business and the media are definitely not going to like. We need Latin American-style "socialist" revolution in the streets, complemented by effective traditional political organizing, social-class based.

The 2 parties are really just a mechanism of social control. They're not a way for "the people" to express their will; they're a way for rulers to control the people - partly by making them believe that they (the peeps) have some say (which they don't). Building a movement to oppose this takes time. But its sine qua non is political consciousness - the type that socialists understand & try to cultivate; and that the big-business parties & media try to suppress & eradicate.

In today's US, especially at the national level, elections are worse than worthless -- they simply perpetuate illusions & waste time. They are degrading & repulsive exercises in Madison Avenue PR techniques, where "the truth" is off limits from the get-go. Effort should be directed not at participating in this system, but at bringing it down, exposing its corrupt essence, & building genuinely constructive alternatives.


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