Explaining 'the enthusiasm gap'
Joshua Tucker wonders how parties that took power atop excited majorities in one year go on to lose power because their voters don't turn out the next year:
Maybe it is easier for opposition parties to “rally the faithful” because the faithful don’t have to be distracted by what party leaders actually do once in power, and therefore can read anything they want into what the party is likely to do when it gets into power. So for example, Obama’s “Yes, We Can!” might have meant single-payer health care to some, a public option to others, and a more modified version of the status quo to still others. Now, however, some of those prior supporters are bound to be disappointed. They may still prefer Obama (Democrats) to the alternative, but perhaps this can explain the enthusiasm gap.
Here’s a little bit of evidence to perhaps related to this final proposition. In a conference paper we presented at 2010 APSA meeting, Ted Brader, Dominik Duell and I reported on the results of experiments on the effects of party cues on public opinion formation in Hungary, Poland, and Great Britain. Interested readers can download the paper here, but to greatly summarize, the point [of] the experiments was to test whether or not hearing that your preferred party supported a particular policy made you more likely to support that policy as well. When we broke down our findings by party, an interesting finding quickly became apparent: across all three countries, we were more likely to find cues affecting the opinions of supporters of opposition parties than incumbent parties.
Another way to put this is that the number of voters who didn't like George W. Bush plus the number of voters who understood and were excited about Obama's agenda was a lot larger than the number of voters who understood and were excited about Obama's agenda. Add in that passing that agenda was a pretty crummy experience for lots of Democrats -- they lost the public option, the stimulus was bargained down, and they generally feel that Obama hasn't picked enough fights on their behalf -- and the number of ardent supporters Democrats have going into November is a lot lower than the number they had in 2008.
If there's a bright side for Democrats, it's that this goes both ways: 2010 is adding voters who don't like the economy and don't think the president has been particularly effectual at improving it to voters who would like to be ruled by a "tea party"-dominated GOP. That mass is a lot larger than the number of voters who want their laws made by a tea party-dominated GOP. But that bright side won't manifest itself for a few years yet, particularly if Republicans don't take both chambers in November.
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