Republicans are fired up. Ready to go. Democrats? Not so much.
The latest CNN/ORC International poll laid out a stark “enthusiasm gap” between the two parties: 36 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting for president next year, compared to just 19 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Similarly, a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found Republicans, especially older white conservatives, were significantly more interested in the 2016 elections than Democrats and their key demographic groups. Seventy-one percent of likely GOP voters rated their interest in the elections as a “10” on a 1-to-10 scale, compared to 58 percent of Democratic voters who said the same.
It would seem Republicans are energized and poised to swamp the polls after eight years of President Barack Obama. But Democrats say there’s no cause for alarm.
“Sitting here in almost-January-2016, any diagnostic on enthusiasm or motivation is really useless,” said John Anzalone, one of the pollsters working for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The GOP, Democrats assert, has a far more competitive race for the nomination compared to Clinton, who is a strong favorite to win the Democratic nod. Between that and the Donald Trump phenomenon, the Republican race is more captivating – as evidenced by both poll numbers and also television ratings for the five GOP debates, which have consistently drawn larger audiences than the Democratic debates.
“It is more interesting,” said Democratic pollster Jef Pollock. “If you want to ask me – a person who’s never voted for a Republican in my entire life – of course it’s more interesting.”
The greater Republican enthusiasm, according to pollsters in both parties, is driven largely by longstanding antipathy toward Clinton and Obama – and also the noisy spectacle of the GOP race. These Democrats aren’t worried that their voters aren’t yet enthusiastic about Clinton’s candidacy, arguing that they will be fired up to defeat the GOP nominee next fall.
“While it’s still quite early, we have seen consistently that support for Hillary Clinton climbs when she is pitted against named Republicans,” said Page Gardner, the president and founder of Women’s Voices, Women Vote Action Fund, a nonprofit that worked with Greenberg on his survey. “So we would expect increased enthusiasm for Clinton – assuming she is the Democratic nominee – once the Republicans have picked their candidate.”
“As much as we want our politics to be all positive,” GOP pollster Jon McHenry agreed, “what drives turnout to a great extent is just being pissed off at somebody.”
For now, enthusiasm among Democrats lags behind, more closely resembling the run-up to Obama’s 2012 reelection – when he didn’t face a primary challenge – than the record-setting 2008 primary between Obama and Clinton.
In an Oct. 2011 CNN poll, 21 percent of Democrats said they were “very enthusiastic” about the coming election, while 38 percent of Republicans said the same.
Compare that to June 2007 – the best-available analog in CNN’s limited trendlines – when 28 percent of Democrats were “very enthusiastic,” compared to 27 percent of Republicans.
Clinton – as a result of her frontrunner status and her close ties to the current administration – is functioning as the incumbent, pollsters in both parties said. That makes Democrats less concerned about the lack of a current tide of enthusiasm for her candidacy.
“On my side, I’ve got an incumbent with a nagging primary challenge,” said Pollock, the Democratic pollster. “It’s more like 2012 than it is like 2008.”
Republicans mostly agreed that their current enthusiasm gap is unlikely to hold until the general election – but also cautioned that Democrats may never be truly pumped for Clinton’s candidacy.
“If you’re the Democrats, and you’re looking at the combination of Hillary’s age and the fact she makes a lot of unforced errors and the fact she’s been around since the early 90s – that’s not exactly the hope and change you’re looking for,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
“There’s always some question of how much enthusiasm there is after eight years for more of the same, even if it’s a bit different,” Bolger added, pointing to the difficulty of a party winning a third consecutive time before a usually restless electorate.
The CNN trendlines hint at this possibility. On the eve of the 2008 election, 45 percent of Democrats described themselves as “very enthusiastic,” compared to only 28 percent of Republicans. That resulted in a 7-point victory for Obama over Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Another challenge for Democrats is, demographically, many of the voters who support them by the widest margins are also the least engaged. The Democracy Corps/Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund study showed a split between likely voters they call the “Rising American Electorate” – racial minorities, millennials and unmarried women – and other voters: 56 percent of voters in the “Rising American Electorate,” a group growing rapidly with every election cycle, rated themselves a “10” on the interest scale, regardless of their vote preference. That’s far behind all other voters, 72 percent of whom rated their interest as a “10.”
Asked what Democrats can do to motivate the important, unenthusiastic members of their coalition, Gardner said their research shows that “if progressive candidates put a middle class agenda at the center of the economic debate – and couple it with an embrace of reform of politics and government – support and enthusiasm for those candidates will really take off.”
But Gardner and other Democrats also suggested that these groups could step off the sidelines if Republicans nominate one of their more polarizing candidates – like Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Gardner said support among members of the “Rising American Electorate” for Clinton among the “climbs through the roof” when respondents are asked explicitly about a Clinton-Trump matchup.
“If Donald Trump or Cruz are the nominee, I would imagine that how that inflames the base and probably brings millennials or minorities out,” Anzalone agreed. “Once you have nominees, things change – and it becomes very real to people.”
Anzalone also touted the Democratic ground game in the general election, arguing that the party has overcome the enthusiasm gap in past races by turning out voters who were considered less likely to cast ballots until Election Day. In early November 2012, 42 percent of Republicans were “very enthusiastic” about voting, according to CNN data, compared to 37 percent of Democrats.
“We have shown in 2008 and 2012 that regardless of what the polls or the talking heads say … we blow them out of the water in the last month of the campaign in terms of motivating our base and persuading voters to come out and vote for Democrats,” Anzalone said.
None of this means Democrats would prefer to be the party of lower enthusiasm at this point of the campaign – just that they don’t think it’s predictive of what will happen next autumn.
“I don’t care about where they are today,” said Pollock. “I care about where they are come [next] October.”
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